Want economic justice? Get behind Sacramento sales tax hike

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg announced Thursday he will ask voters for a 1-cent sales tax measure in November.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg announced Thursday he will ask voters for a 1-cent sales tax measure in November. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Fifty years ago this month, the Poor People’s Campaign demanded that our nation’s leaders finally deal with deep and persistent poverty across America.

That history is crucial to how Sacramento should view the 1-cent sales tax that Mayor Darrell Steinberg proposed Thursday for the November ballot.

The police killing of Stephon Clark in March spotlighted not only criminal justice, but also the need for economic justice in Sacramento. These issues of race and inequality have been with us for a very long time – what Steinberg described as “the continued cycle of poverty, despair and generational trauma that is the reality for too many members of our community.”

In his speech at Sacramento City College, the mayor called for inclusive economic growth and started with what he called a haunting question: “Why does a third grader living in south Sacramento have less of a chance in life than a third grader living in East Sacramento?”

Steinberg is right: It’s intolerable that poverty is becoming even more concentrated in Sacramento and that so few black and Latino residents go to college. “We can’t afford – either morally or economically – to have so much of our future workforce unprepared to achieve our region’s great economic ambitions,” he said.

Under Steinberg’s plan, the November ballot measure would permanently extend Measure U, the existing half-cent sales tax that raises about $50 million a year for police, fire and parks and that expires next March.

The proposal would also add another half cent, with $25 million a year going to neighborhood services and workforce development and the other $25 million creating a capital fund for jobs and housing. Steinberg wants that money matched with other public or private money, so that if the capital fund eventually grows to $500 million, it could leverage an investment of $2 billion or more.

The City Council is to start debating the proposal on Tuesday. While the final version placed on the ballot must be fully vetted, the overall goal is worthy, and we support it in principle.

It’s clear that neighborhoods that have historically struggled with poverty and crime – Meadowview, Del Paso Heights, north Sacramento and others – are not fully sharing in the city’s economic revival that is putting fancy condos in midtown and new restaurants in downtown. For now, public investment is heavily weighted to downtown, with major renovations in the works for the Community Center Theater, Memorial Auditorium and Sacramento Convention Center.

But to invest more in neighborhoods, housing and jobs, city officials and community leaders must persuade voters to raise taxes, never easy. Under this plan, the total local sales tax would increase to 8.75 percent. And sales taxes disproportionately burden the poor, whom this measure is designed to help.

It’s a political calculation to go to voters with a single measure. Public safety is an easier sell to voters and the police and firefighter unions are powerful and well-funded, so a separate measure to renew Measure U – approved with 64 percent of the vote in 2012 – would likely have passed easily. Without it, there would probably be deep budget cuts.

But a separate measure for neighborhoods and housing would be a tougher sell. So officials hope by combining the two, they can get both over the finish line. To make sure the sales tax needs only a simple majority to pass, officials must be careful not to promise specific projects that would require it to be a special tax needing a two-thirds majority for approval. Still, Steinberg says officials can and must detail what the money could go for – a balancing act that could determine the measure’s success.

The November ballot is already looking crowded with potential statewide measures on data privacy, rent control and repealing the gas tax. There could also be a local measure on rent control. But for Sacramento voters, there will be none more significant for their future than this sales tax.