Measure U: City leaders need to ditch the excuses and keep their promises

Hear Mayor Darrell Steinberg talk about what he’ll do with the money that comes from Measure U

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg talks to the Bee reporter Theresa Clift about Measure U at an election night party at Urban Roots in Sacramento on Nov. 6, 2018.
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Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg talks to the Bee reporter Theresa Clift about Measure U at an election night party at Urban Roots in Sacramento on Nov. 6, 2018.

When Sacramento voters chose to raise their own taxes by supporting Measure U last November, they did so as an expression of belief in the city’s future. Mayor Darrell Steinberg told them that a vote for Measure U was a vote for desperately needed investments in housing, young people and economically deprived communities.

Despite all the negative attacks from Measure U’s opponents – who said money from the new half-cent portion of the one-cent sales tax would be swallowed by pensions and ongoing costs – the people of Sacramento took a leap of hope and faith. Did they make a mistake?

In retrospect, Measure U’s critics look pretty wise. A recent budget forecast by City Manager Howard Chan shows exactly what they said it would: A city forced to use the new tax funds to pay for old obligations like pensions.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg now suggests that the only way to actually keep the promise of Measure U is for the city to “securitize” a portion of the funds, according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak and Theresa Clift. This means Sacramento would borrow against its budget to issue bonds, creating an upfront windfall of funds for economic development.

It’s easy to see why the mayor likes the plan. Of course, Sacramento voters would be on the hook for paying it back over decades, with millions upon millions of dollars in interest.


The mayor’s securitization scheme “will put our civic assets at risk and place taxpayers on the hook for 30 years for loans the city may not be able to repay,” wrote Councilman Jeff Harris, who declined to support Measure U, in a publication called Inside Sacramento.

“Nowhere in the ballot language was it suggested the tax would be the vehicle to incur massive new debt,” Harris wrote.

Harris and Councilmember Angelique Ashby suggest the mayor’s proposal could eventually lead the city into bankruptcy. It’s scary talk, but there’s some truth to it. If we learned anything from the Gov. Jerry Brown era, we learned that it’s foolish to make long-term picnic plans based on today’s economic weather. While everyone would like a large influx of funds to invest in good stuff, a recession could knock a financially overextended city to its knees.

Besides, the mayor seems to be saying he can’t keep the promise he made last year unless you trust him to make another promise with consequences that could last years. His heart may be in the right place, but it’s a tough sell and the mayor hasn’t made the case.

Some councilmembers, along with City Manager Chan, don’t seem too concerned about the promises the mayor made. In Sacramento’s weak mayor system of government, he’s just one vote. They see money on the table and think some of it should be used to pay the city’s preexisting bills – high hopes for big investments in Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods be damned.

It’s a cynical view, but City Hall has a way of making fools out of optimists. Still, Sacramento can’t sit idly by while its elected officials betray the will of the voters.

Barry Broome, who heads the Greater Sacramento Economic Council and strongly supported Measure U, thinks Sacramento voters may need to resort to extreme measures.

“I think repealing the measure should be on the table,” said Broome, in a tweet.

We don’t disagree. Before it comes to that, however, we hope Mayor Steinberg and the City Council will find creative ways to honor their promises to voters. Given the current deficit of trust, we don’t think an expensive bond scheme is in the cards.

Mayor Steinberg sold Measure U to the voters with the assurance that he had the political prowess to wrangle the council votes necessary to direct funds to the promised investments. Since most of the City Council supported Measure U, this should be entirely possible.

As for the city’s expanding pension obligations, that’s a separate discussion Sacramento’s leaders need to have with voters. They would be wise, however, to keep old promises before requesting new favors.

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