Foon Rhee

It’s penny-pinchers vs. big spenders on Measure U. Guess who will Sacramento voters will believe?

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is championing the Measure U sales tax, visits a ballot drop-off site  at a Bel Air supermarket in Elk Grove on  Oct. 9.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is championing the Measure U sales tax, visits a ballot drop-off site at a Bel Air supermarket in Elk Grove on Oct. 9.

The battle over Measure U, the Sacramento sales tax hike, is coming down to a contest of numbers.

Will voters be convinced by opponents who say City Hall doesn’t really need the money and who just put out a list of cost-saving recommendations to prove their point?

Or will voters be more persuaded by supporters who are mounting a big-dollar advertising blitz funded by unions and others with a vested interest in city spending?

Measure U, on the Nov. 6 ballot, is two measures rolled into one. It would extend an existing half-cent sales tax that voters passed in 2012 to restore budget cuts during the Great Recession and would otherwise expire March 31. It also would add a half cent, which city officials say will go toward affordable housing, job training and economic development. The combined 1-cent permanent sales tax, bringing the total rate to 8.75 percent in Sacramento, would raise nearly $100 million a year.

Voting is well under way, and so is the campaigning. Glossy “yes” brochures are filling mailboxes, while there are “no” billboards and yard signs.

A campaign committee created by Mayor Darrell Steinberg raised $477,500 through Sept. 22 and has received a several sizable contributions since then. Major donors include the city police union and the firefighters union; the fire union also bankrolled the original Measure U. Other big contributors include SEIU Local 1000, the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California and Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 447.

Measure U critics have seized on that union support and have tied it to a local hiring agreement on major public development that the City Council approved in August. They say the agreement, which will cover at least 10 construction projects in the next 18 months, including the Sacramento Convention Center expansion and Community Center Theater renovation, gives unions a monopoly and will raise costs.

On Thursday, Measure U foes stood outside City Hall to accuse Steinberg of a corrupt deal with the building trades union – the labor agreement for campaign cash – and to call for an FBI investigation.

Opponents need to throw a bomb like that into the campaign because they are raising far less money — $65,500 through Sept. 22 —although they also have hauled in some big donations since then. The anti-union Western Electrical Contractors Association, which opposed Steinberg for mayor in 2016, has given a total of $49,700. Chris Rufer, a Woodland agribusiness executive who also backed a campaign against a city subsidy for the Golden 1 Center, has put in $49,900.

The anti-Measure U campaign will benefit from distrust from some neighborhood organizations and advocacy groups that the money will actually flow to the people they represent. For instance, the Greater Sacramento NAACP came out against the measure, calling it a regressive tax on the backs of poor and minority families.

Opponents also are counting heavily on frustration and concern from taxpayers. To that end, Eye on Sacramento – a local watchdog group that is a thorn in the side of City Hall – this week issued a “blueprint” that it claims will reduce spending by more than what the sales tax would bring in, and without reducing basic services or requiring layoffs.

The blueprint puts the potential bottom line at $199 million a year — $140 million in cost savings, $34 million in “avoided future costs” and $25 million in additional revenue.

City Hall, however, disputes many of the proposals and says the potential savings are vastly overstated.

Among the 22 recommendations, some have been suggested before, such as replacing firefighters with civilian paramedics in Fire Department ambulances, and reducing fire engine crews from four to three except in the central city.

Some proposals would have to be negotiated with unions: requiring employees to pay more into their pensions; eliminating cash outs for unused vacation, sick days and other paid time off; and ending supplemental pay that police officers and firefighters get for degrees, licenses and special duty.

Others would require the city to reverse course on major decisions, such as withdrawing from the proposed streetcar line to West Sacramento and canceling the convention center expansion. One recommendation is to demand $15 million a year from state government to cover the property taxes it doesn’t pay.

And many of the recommendations would require the kind of political courage that doesn’t happen very often. But without making some tough choices on spending and figuring out how to deliver services more efficiently, it’s possible that the additional sales tax revenue will be eaten up by pension costs, which are projected to jump by $62 million in the next four years.

The numbers that matter most on Measure U, of course, are votes.

The original Measure U passed with 64 percent in 2012. It’s a good bet that it will be much, much closer this time.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee