The Politically Cynical Argument for Supporting Kersey's Infrastructure "Lockbox"

Over at Voice of San Diego, Liam Dillon has a great take on Councilmember Mark Kersey's proposed 2016 ballot measure to "fix" the infrastructure funding gap.  On the VOSD podcast, Dillon again did a great job of explaining the proposal and its problems.  Basically, the plan puts certain tax revenues in a "lockbox" by requiring that they be spent on infrastructure.  As Dillon points out, "[Kersey] wants to set the city’s spending priorities for the next 30 years without having to make the hard decisions on what the city won’t be able to buy because of his mandate."  

 

I generally agree with this position and think Kersey's plan is disappointing.  We need additional revenue, not just a reshuffling of existing and expected future revenue.  But I think there is at least one argument to support this proposal, although it requires you to be somewhat politically cynical. 

 

If this measure is adopted, it would require the City to spend a certain share of future tax revenue on infrastructure.  Dillon faults the plan because he concludes that it would force a future City Council to decide what other services the city won't be able to buy due to this revenue being locked into infrastructure.  In effect, a decision today forces the hand of the future City Council.  As Dillon says, this means the future City Council will have to decide what to cut from the budget.  It pushes the hard decision into the future.

 

The problem with that conclusion is that it assumes that a future City Council will only be able to cut expenditures and not be able to raise taxes.  Perhaps, in 2030, it will be easier to get new tax revenue approved by the voters.  This may be especially true if most of the tax revenue is put in lockboxes for less popular expenditures by previous measures.  A future councilmember could argue to the public that some knucklehead in 2016 mandated that a certain portion of the city budget be dedicated to infrastructure, so the City's hands are tied now as to police salary increases.  So, citizens of a future San Diego, if you want a police force, you have to pass this tax increase.   

 

Basically, if you believe a 2030 sales tax increase to fund a police department is more likely to pass than a 2016 tax increase to fund infrastructure, it can be a smart move to approve the infrastructure lockbox now to force the hand of the city in 2030.  I'm not willing to make that prediction, especially when I am not at all convinced that a 2016 infrastructure megabond could not pass.  But it's not an inherently unreasonable conclusion.