Lean, Mean Ballot for San Francisco This June

by Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
March 19, 2012

As the rest of the country eagerly watches the Republican presidential primary drama unfold, San Francisco prepares for a comparatively uneventful June election. Five proposed initiatives have dropped off the ballot, leaving the city to consider just two measures this election. Prop. A would change the competitive procurement and franchising for solid waste disposal in the city. Passage would end Recology’s regulated monopoly, and could put the city’s goal of zero waste by 2020 in jeopardy. And Prop. B, a non-binding declaration of policy, aims to protect and maintain Coit Tower and beautify surrounding Pioneer Park by strictly limiting commercial activities and private events.

Just two measures ... in San Francisco? Is it ballot fatigue? Has the recession depressed ballot activity? Did SPUR’s work on ballot reform strike the balance we hoped for? Regardless of the reason, San Francisco’s initiative process is clearly changing. In recent years, ballots have gotten shorter and the issues increasingly serious, including multiple substantive measures on pension reform in the November 2011 election. What’s more, how they get to the ballot is also changing:

1.    Both measures on the June ballot were placed there by voter signature. This is by no means new to San Francisco elections, but seldom do we hold elections comprised solely of measures sent to the ballot by voter petition. In fact, only once in the last 50 years has there been an election with only initiatives placed on the ballot by voters.

2.    There are no measures on the June ballot placed there by signatures of either the mayor or board of supervisors. While the trend of voter initiatives is interesting, the fact that neither the mayor nor board of supervisors submitted a measure for consideration this spring is especially notable. Is this a reflection of recent requirements for advance submission and public hearings? As the sponsors of the 2007 measure to require these ballot reforms, we would certainly like to think so.

3.    A number of measures working their way through the board of supervisors were removed. It is certainly not the last we will see of measures addressing runoff elections or public financing, but for now these measures will not be considered in June. It is increasingly likely that we will see measures in November that reform the city’s current instant runoff votin structure structure and consolidate elections for all citywide offices.

Keep in mind, however, that while June may be extremely lean, the November ballot will be heavy with tax-related measures. Under state law, local general tax increases require only 50 percent voter approval in years that legislative officers are elected, and 2012 is one of those years. Combined with the recession driving the state’s need for new revenues, this means there will be multiple statewide tax measures on the ballot. (There are currently two, following the governor’s most recent announcement of a consolidation.) Add local efforts to reform San Francisco’s payroll tax, and this translates into a number of local and state tax proposals getting stacked into a single election.

San Franciscans, enjoy the peace and quiet of an uneventful June. November will be the true test of success with local ballot reform.