Editorials

The Measure U debate is about more than taxes. It’s about Sacramento’s future as a city.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg wants voters to extend a half-cent addition to the sales tax, and add another half-cent. The City Council votes Tuesday on whether to put the tax measure on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg wants voters to extend a half-cent addition to the sales tax, and add another half-cent. The City Council votes Tuesday on whether to put the tax measure on the Nov. 6 ballot. Sacramento Bee file

What kind of city do we want Sacramento to be? Do we want a place that provides public safety and just does the basics? Or do we want to aim higher – to bring economic growth to neighborhoods long left behind?

The City Council ought to let voters decide that question by agreeing Tuesday to put a 1-cent sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot. If approved, the total sales tax in Sacramento would rise to 8.75 percent next April.

The proposed measure would renew the existing Measure U, the half-cent sales tax that voters approved in November 2012 to help restore personnel and programs slashed during the Great Recession. The tax is bringing in close to $50 million a year and is paying for 195 police positions, 137 in the parks and youth department and 90 in the fire department. Measure U is set to expire March 31, and if it does, it would blow a huge hole in the city budget, already straining under increasing pension costs.

The measure also calls for a half-cent increase to pay for neighborhood investment, affordable housing and jobs and youth programs. It’s all in the quest for inclusive economic growth, an issue on center stage since the police killing of Stephon Clark in March. Mayor Darrell Steinberg has been out front, promoting the expanded Measure U as a potential “game changer” for Sacramento.

With a single measure, the political strategy is to win support from more conservative voters who care mostly about public safety, along with police and firefighter unions – and also attract more progressive voters and advocacy groups who care deeply about economic justice.

But by putting both the renewal and additional half cent in the same measure, the city would take a big risk. Councilman Jeff Harris says he worries that a full cent is too much for many voters; he told a member of The Sacramento Bee editorial board on Monday that he plans to suggest three-quarters of a cent instead.

To keep the measure a general tax that requires only a simple majority to pass, city officials can’t make specific, ironclad promises of how the proceeds would be spent.

What they can do is give broad hints. So it’s no accident that right before the discussion on the sales tax on Tuesday’s agenda, the City Council will talk about what the city can do to increase and diversify Sacramento’s economic growth.

This is a follow-through for Project Prosper, the city’s first comprehensive strategy for inclusive economic growth. Experts found that Sacramento has higher than average inequality and bigger gaps by race and between neighborhoods, and that it needs better education and workforce training and more affordable housing. It’s not all doom and gloom: Sacramento can capitalize on jobs in state government and pursue more research and innovation companies.

Still, there’s only so much cash that would come from the sales tax, so council members must be careful not to promise too much.

With the City Council races decided in June, the sales tax will be the most important local issue on the November ballot, by far. It deserves a robust debate, and it starts in earnest Tuesday.

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