The 2011 Election's Real Winner? Getting Back to Basics
November 17, 2011
Image courtesy Flickr user joshdamon

With Election 2011 finally past, San Francisco voters have sent several very clear messages to our local officials. Outside of the much-discussed mayor’s race, there were some important items on the ballot this year, and voters appear to have ignored the noise and focused on the business at hand. Not only did we have the shortest ballot for a mayoral election in more than 50 years, but we managed to address some of our most pressing challenges. What was on voters’ minds?

1. We need to invest in infrastructure. Bonds for both schools and roads passed, signaling that voters are focused on the fundamentals. Proposition A was the third in a series of three bonds to retrofit the city’s schools, and it passed with more than 70 percent (but required only 55 percent). Proposition B, however, was a more unconventional funding approach for the city’s streets and roads. While issuing debt may not be the most desirable mechanism for these types of repairs, voters clearly recognized a pressing need for investment, and perhaps acknowledged that further delay could cost taxpayers significantly more.


2. Cost containment is a priority, and pension reform is a major piece of that puzzle. While many may not quite understand the technical complexities of the city’s pension system, voters clearly grasp the need for city workers to share in the pain during this down economy. There aren’t many places workers can find defined-benefit retirement plans these days, but that really wasn’t the point. Voters clearly supported the consensus-based process that led to Proposition C, which passed by more than 69 percent. Meanwhile, the competing pension proposal on the ballot (Proposition D) was defeated by an equal margin (66 percent against). We can only hope voters recognize that this is a $1.2 billion downpayment on what is a much larger problem funding pension benefits. A statewide conversation on this is also coming soon.

3. Keep your hands off our ballot. Changing the ballot initiative process is never easy, but voters either disagree about the reforms of Proposition E or weren’t sure what the implications were. There were many conflicting analyses of Prop. E — including many inaccuracies — but ultimately voters opposed the idea of initiative reform, even if only for measures originating at the Board of Supervisors. SPUR continues to support ballot reforms that make sure voter approval is reserved for matters that cannot be handled by elected officials. The ballot is a blunt (and expensive) instrument both for enacting ordinances and amending them. It’s important to remember: For every measure approved by voters, every little change must again be approved by the voters, no matter how large or small.

4. Now is not the time for taxes. Bonds are fine, just not taxes. Proposition G —  Mayor Lee’s sales tax proposal — required support from two-thirds of voters for approval. Unfortunately, it didn’t even make it to 50 percent. While it could be said that the measure was not the right solution to the city’s revenue woes, it was also a signal that voters did not think that regressive tools such as sales taxes were the right tool in a down economy — even for public safety and social services.

In many ways, it could be said that this election was about a return to priorities, even in spite of the meager turnout (barely 40 percent, at the last tally). With the considerable funds spent on the mayor’s race, it’s amazing that some very important measures on the ballot were able to break through the noise.

How did each of the measures — and SPUR recommendations — fare?

MeasureYesNoSPUR Position
Measure A - School Bonds*70.9%29.1%Yes   ✓
Measure B - Road Repaving and Street Safety Bonds**67.8%32.2%Yes   ✓
Measure C - City Pension and Health Care Benefits68.9%31.1%Yes   ✓
Measure D - City Pension Benefits33.5%66.5%No    ✓
Measure E - Amending or Repealing Legislative Initiative Ordinances and Declarations of Policy32.9%67.1%Yes  ✖
Measure F - Campaign Consultant Ordinance43.9%56.1%Yes   ✖
Measure G - Sales Tax**45.1%54.9%No    ✓
Measure H - School District Student Assignment49.97%50.03%No position

* Requires 55% support to pass
** Requires two-thirds support to pass

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