Tyranny by Soccer Field
By Joel P. Engardio
The alphabet soup of propositions – from A to L -- on the San Francisco ballot can be confusing. For example, Props H and I both tackle the grass versus turf battle in Golden Gate Park.
It doesn’t matter that numerous government bodies already ruled in favor of the kids who lack durable turf soccer fields. The losing grass side resurrected the issue on the ballot, thanks to California’s system of direct democracy. Get enough signatures and voters can decide anything.
But why bother electing representatives if we’re going to determine everything by popular vote? It’s a messy way to get things done and unfair when voter turnout is low. Only the most motivated and organized voters have the advantage to overturn judicial and legislative decisions that don’t go their way.
It’s called a tyranny of the majority. James Madison – an author of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and the nation’s fourth president -- warned that direct democracy would create factions that trample individual liberties. It happened with Prop 8, when voters who didn’t like same-sex marriage successfully banned it in California for five years.
Madison certainly didn’t worry about tyranny by soccer field, but the San Francisco example proves his point: factions interested in preserving gopher holes or a starry sky can band together with Prop H to deny less-powerful youths the ability to play soccer on a safe, well-lit field. Prop I would let the new field get built.
What about taxes? Madison favored granting Congress the Constitutional power of taxation, but he argued for a more limited version than what his fellow founding father Alexander Hamilton called for. Madison and Hamilton would have enjoyed debating propositions E and G.
Prop E is a tax on sugary beverages, with the purpose to curb consumption of the sugar-laden soda that medical researchers say is linked to an epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes. Prop G wants to address the housing crisis with a tax on the resale of residential properties within five years.
Both taxes aim to fix real problems, but what does the collection of another tax solve? It’s worth noting that City Hall already has an $8.6 billion budget that has nearly doubled in a decade. Are city services twice as good?
Prop G is a cynical tax. It isn’t dedicated to building more housing (an actual solution) because a tax that pays for something specific is harder to pass, requiring a two-thirds majority. So Prop G is taking the easier route of simple majority. Those taxes end up in the unaccountable black hole of City Hall’s general fund.
Prop G is also fraught with unintended consequences. The huge tax – up to 24 percent of a property’s value -- will financially devastate innocent homeowners with a family situation not included on the tax’s exemption list.
While Prop G supposedly seeks to chill housing speculation, it won’t be a deterrent. San Francisco’s high-demand and low-supply housing market will encourage sellers to add the tax to the sale price. New renters and homebuyers will end up paying the tax, not the speculators. Housing will just cost more for everyone.
As for Prop E, it can be argued that philanthropically funded education campaigns are a more effective way to change soda-drinking behavior than a local tax -- especially when pallets of cheap soda are easily obtained at any Costco just outside San Francisco.
But at least Prop E requires a two-thirds vote. That makes it a sincere tax. The money Prop E generates will pay for specific solutions like nutrition and recreation programs in public schools and parks.
Let’s just hope Props H and I leave kids with a decent soccer field to play on.