When state Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, announced his support for a constitutional amendment to roll back a critical piece of tax-cutting Proposition 13, the reaction was swift: There were catcalls, praise and at least one satiric newspaper cartoon.
Leno’s SCA3, which requires voter approval, would allow passage of local parcel taxes with a 55 percent vote. Currently that threshold, set by Proposition 13 in 1978, is a two-thirds vote.
Proposition 13 has profoundly affected California government over the years and remains popular with the statewide electorate, although that support clearly is lessening, according to polls.
But elements of Proposition 13 may be vulnerable, such as the parcel tax. Leno noted voters’ earlier decision to lower the threshold for local school bonds. And he isn’t alone in looking at Proposition 13: In the Assembly, legislation is brewing for a so-called “split roll,” in which commercial property is taxed differently than residential property.
Leno, whose redrawn district includes all of San Francisco and portions of Colma, Daly City, South San Francisco and an unincorporated area of San Mateo County, was appointed by then-Mayor Willie Brown to a seat on the San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, where he served from 1998 to 2002. He served three terms in the Assembly, then won a Senate seat in 2008. He chairs the Budget and Fiscal Review Committee and is a member of the Judiciary, Labor and Industrial Relations Committees and the Joint Committee on Rules.
Capitol Weekly caught up with Leno and spoke with him about taxes and other issues.
What about changing Proposition 13?
Now any threshold beyond a simple majority is clearly an arbitrary number. Why two thirds, why not 70 percent, why not 60 percent or 65 percent? It’s all arbitrary. These numbers did not come engraved in stone. We have two thirds because that’s what Howard Jarvis put in his 1978 measure…I’m told that there were about 27 school parcel taxes on the November ballot. Seventeen passed, 10 did not, 10 did not get to the two-thirds threshold but seven of the 10 got beyond 55 percent. This would have benefited seven districts throughout the state and that would, in my opinion, be beneficial to everyone.”
What is the outlook statewide for a change to a 55 percent threshold?
Well, I can refer you to Proposition 39 of 2000 when California voters lowered the threshold for school bonds from two thirds to 55 percent. We think this is just making things consistent.
Your party has attained a super majority in the Assembly and the Senate and the press reports that there are concerns among Republicans that it will bring excesses in spending. How do you view this development? Do you feel it offers legitimate concerns? What benefits can the state expect to derive from it?
The whole issue of super majority is that there is some belief that we’re going to burn down the house and raise everyone’s taxes. That’s not going to happen.
First of all, we’re not monolithic, we represent a broad range of communities throughout the state and we have a wide variety of constituencies. And we have a Governor who says he will not support any taxes not supported by voters. I don’t think anyone need be concerned. Prop 13? Regulatory fees? We will have an honest base and we’ll see where we land. The opportunity to put constitutional changes on the ballot without the overlay of partisan politics. I’ve never been a fan of super majorities. I think it’s a formula for governmental dysfunction …
Our approval ratings have more than doubled since the passage of Prop 25. Twenty-five has shown voters that the majority can get its job done, the budget, on time in successive years. And I believe it will always be on time now. There’s no reason for it not to be.
You earned your Bachelor of Arts degree at the American College of Jerusalem and later spent two years in Rabbinical Studies. Did you contemplate life in religious service and, if so, what caused you to change direction? How has that early training influenced your life in public service?
I did spend two years of a five-year post graduate program at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Long title for a small school. And so, yes, I am a rabbinic dropout. And I did seriously consider a life in the Rabbinate which can take several forms, congregational and otherwise, but as I was making my way through the studies it became clear to me that that wasn’t going to happen so I dropped out and in a year or so went to San Francisco and in a year or so started a small business which I have to this day. So I’m a small business owner.
Which of your life experiences have been most helpful in preparing you for politics?
My business grew and afforded me a wonderful life in San Francisco and as the business grew I gravitated to community volunteerism and civic participation and I think that by the time that Willie Brown offered me a seat on the County Board of Supervisors in 1998 about half of my work day was spent on for profit and half on not-for-profit. Overnight my community service became public service. … And I have found public life to be certainly challenging at times but otherwise it has taught me that people are very appreciative. I say please and thank you, offer direct communication whether it’s agreeable or not, am forthright and, in return, they’re very gracious and very appreciative. I feel like I’m a lucky guy. But it’s not like any other job, one does learn. I manage to place different experiences and occurrences in perspective.
I do remember what Willie Brown told me. He was not mayor at the time. We were in his office and we were chatting and I was fretting over a recent vote, I can’t even tell you what the vote was, and he said ‘take a deep breath and trust me, years from now no one will have any clue how you voted on that but they will remember whether you showed up at the event.’ That was good advice from a master…”
Which of your accomplishments as a member of the Assembly and Senate are those of which you’re most proud?
Criminal justice reform in both houses. In my first ten years, percentage of general funds spent on corrections grew from 5.3 percent to 11 percent, and that’s not sustainable. But that’s allowed us to turn the corner and in a couple of years we’ll be back down to seven percent.
Of course, I’m pleased to be able to move the issue of marriage equality forward. In 2004, we introduced the first of its kind, a marriage equality bill that was the first introduced in a state house in the entire country. The first to introduce it and the first to get it to a governor’s desk. Of course, there are now nine states with equal marriage rights and we still don’t. But we will have it very soon and it’s very exciting to see that aspect of the civil rights movement move so quickly and in a short period of time…
Other interest areas are privacy issues, electronic privacy which we’ll continue to work on, foster care, tenants rights, consumer rights. A wide variety of issues that will be our focus in this session. When I left Rabbinical School, a friend gave me a tee shirt for Hanukah with a message on it that read ‘Ready without a cause’ and he says today, “Who knew you’d have so many causes?”
The other day the Sacramento Bee ran a front page story that described trips made by California lawmakers to Hawaii and other countries as the guests of “powerful interest groups”. The story carefully provided the pros and cons of this practice but to the casual reader they seem to be boondoggles. What’s your view of the practice?
I always want to be respectful of my colleagues who may make decisions different from my own. For myself, I don’t participate at all. It’s just a discomfort. It’s not just in the legislature. It’s anywhere in my life. I don’t feel comfortable unless I pay my own way. It’s the way I was raised. I have not taken a single such trip.
Many Californians are dismayed over the projected cost of the Bullet Train. It has been labeled the “train to nowhere”. What are your thoughts about its value to the state’s future and the attendant cost?
Without a doubt, it is bold, it is daring and it is visionary and we must do it. There are 40 million Californians, just about, who will soon be 50 or 60 million within decades. There is no possibility that we can move goods and persons on enough freeways and expanded runways to handle that many more people and if we could the environmental degradation would cause great harm to health and to communities. So we have to do this. And we have to do it smart and efficiently. So that’s our challenge. Voters supported the bonds. And I think it is telling that some of the naysayers want to confuse taxpayers by suggesting we can’t invest in infrastructure such as high speed rail while we’re struggling to keep our schools funded. That is classic apples and oranges. One is federal fund money, one is private bond money. So it’s a nonsensical statement and exposes either their ignorance or their determination to confuse.
Should police and firefighters pensions greatly exceed, in percentage terms, those of other workers? Some approximate 90 percent of final salary and that’s difficult for many workers to understand.
I think you have to dig deep on this issue. I think you have to look at the average pension benefit for a state worker. It’s in the neighborhood of $20,000 for all state workers, even including those that I think we’d all agree are egregiously high. And the percentage of those that are egregiously high, let’s say those of six figures and up, is minimal. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be reformed and we have. We have, as the Governor said, the most significant public pension reform in the past four decades. This was done just last year. So the issue has been attended to.
Now when we compare to the private sector, it’s difficult, because we know that public employees, on the average, are paid less and that traditionally the difference is made up in benefits. So why would we want to emulate private sector which has seen its median income reduced by eight percent in the last three decades while CEO compensation has grown exponentially? Well that is not something to emulate. And given that 70 percent of our economy is based on consumer spending, to the degree that we continue to ever shrink compensation and retirement benefits, public or private, which are nearly wiped out, that’s another story that I’ll be happy to talk with you about; we won’t have a middle class, we’re already losing a middle class, to consume and to restore our economy to where it’s been during the second half of the 20th century when we did pay people appropriately and they did have pension benefits. We’re going to have a whole baby boomer generation nearly destitute as their expenses climb because of old age
You will be termed out at the end of this term. Do you expect to leave politics? If not, what’s a logical next step for you? Where do you go from here?
In four years, they’ll kick me out of the Capitol. I’ve often said we’re all beneficiaries and victims of term limits. And that’s just the way it is. And I’ve never had a long term game plan. I never pursued any of this. It just presented itself to me. I was very ambivalent about accepting the opportunity to be considered for a possible appointment. After a couple of years that ambivalence became an ambition and I was eager to serve in the Assembly and had to participate in a competitive primary to get there. And when I did, the understanding was that if I did a good job, I had six years in Sacramento. We had an incumbent state Senator and there was no thought of serving in the Senate but circumstances were such that the opportunity presented itself and I ran for the Senate. And now I have eight years to serve in the Senate.
So I’ve always felt that if I show up every day, the rest will take care of itself.
Ed’s Jim Cameron is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.