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News + PoliticsMayor seeks to limit supes budget authority

Mayor seeks to limit supes budget authority

Proposal would take $377 million out of the annual review process

Mayor Lee would have more control over the budget under a plan coming up today
Mayor Lee would have more control over the budget under a plan coming up today

By Tim Redmond

DECEMBER 2, 2015 — Along with a critical vote on the new jail, the SF Supes Budget and Finance Committee will decide today whether 32 city departments should be exempt from annual budget review by the board.

At issue is $377 million in spending that the mayor would prefer to put into “two-year” budgets – which would mean the supervisors (and the public) would lose an annual opportunity to weigh in on how much those agencies are spending and whether the results are consistent with the cost.

According to the Budget Analyst, Harvey Rose:

One of the main disadvantages of the fixed two‐year budget cycle is that it reduces the Board of Supervisors’ budgetary authority. The budget approval process is one of the Board of Supervisors main tools under the Charter to set City policy. Other disadvantages of the fixed two‐year budget include difficulties in forecasting revenues and expenditures, and in incorporating economic and environmental changes.

Supporters of the two-year fixed budget say that it allows for better long-term planning, which makes a certain amount of sense. On the other hand, Rose points out, there’s a way to fix that: Two-year “rolling” budgets, that require annual updates and approve from the board:

Under two‐year rolling budgets, the Board of Supervisors has annual appropriation authority. The Board of Supervisors has appropriation authority over each year of the two‐year rolling budget in the first fiscal year, and retains appropriation authority over the second year of the two‐year rolling budget in the following fiscal year.1 Under two‐year fixed budgets, the Board of Supervisors only has appropriation authority every other year.

Among the departments that would escape annual oversight: The district attorney, city attorney, Planning Department, controller, Superior Court, Department of Elections – and the mayor.

The argument is that most of the departments that would be shifted to fixed two-year budgets are smaller departments and those that primarily provide services to other departments. How the Mayor’s Office, with a $19 million a year budget, fits into the category is a bit confusing.

San Francisco already has a very powerful mayor. The mayor can, as we have seen, unilaterally suspend any other elected official from office, can appoint a majority of the members of nearly every city commission, retains immense control over the budget, can veto legislation, and can make appointments to fill vacancies in any local elected office.

The annual budget process isn’t perfect by any means, and most of the time, the supes only change a small percentage of what the mayor wants. But controlling the purse strings is a central power of a legislative body, and taking away any of that authority just shifts even more power to the mayor.

I know some of the supes are concerned about this. I also know that the mayor typically has six votes for what he wants.

But we’re talking about a huge amount of money here – and a big shift in the balance of power. Worth thinking about.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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19 COMMENTS

  1. Simple: He knows Peskin well enough that Peskin would hold the Mayor’s office hostage holding up the budgetary process to get Peskins way on concessions. Smart Move with a housing obstructionist #dealmaker.

  2. Disqus has a correct description of the process and it is one that takes place in states, counties, and cities across the nation. Saying that Lee’s plan is commonplace is wrong. It attempts to sugarcoat what is obviously a power grab.

  3. I meant Agnos – not sure of the exact dates.

    Feinstein introduced rent control so is hardly a right-winger.

    Moscone was left’ish as well, but he got the Moscone center built so wasn’t all bad.

    But I recall from the 1990’s that the Board was quite conservative back then, both before and after Jordan. Tim’s opinions are skewed by his perception that the Board is always more progressive than the mayor, but that could change.

  4. Harvey Rose is an astute analyst of budgetary matters.

    He has written pretty extensively about the need for public-sector pension reform. Do you and your bosses at the SEIU ever listen?

  5. I don’t recall Agnos asking the BOS to decrease its departmental oversight twenty five years ago as Lee is seeking. (And mayoral control over the commissions and departments is greater post Brown.) Is this something that Tim wrote about then? I didn’t see it in the Guardian archives.

  6. In most cities, a city manager’s office, not its mayor, presents a budget and its recommendations to a city’s board or council. It is usually the last year’s budget, which is then modified and voted upon by the board after public discussion. The point is checks and balances to govt. power. Where there is significant risk of abuse and corruption, this is all the more important.

    You’re right about the horse trading, though even more of that is grandstanding.

  7. In most jurisdictions, a city manager’s office, not its mayor, presents a budget and its recommendations to a city’s board or council. It is usually the last year’s budget, which is then modified and voted upon by the board after public discussion. The point is checks and balances to govt power. Where there is significant risk of abuse and corruption, this is all the more important.

    I don’t recall Agnos asking the BOS to decrease its departmental oversight twenty five years ago as Lee is seeking. Did you something about that in the Guardian archives?

  8. And if we had a left-wing mayor with a more right-wing Board, as happened in the early 1980’s, then Tim would be arguing the exact opposite.

  9. What does the Mayor not want out of the citizens of SF? The budget and large contracts are one of the few things the Supervisors have left to support their constituents. Even Paul Rose is not on board this time.
    And look at the budgets he wants to control: The district attorney, city attorney, Planning Department, controller, Superior Court, Department of Elections – and the mayor.
    Why don’t we just crown him and get it over with.

  10. True but, again, it is the executive who has the lead and presents the initial version of the budget. In practice, of course, the thing goes back and forth a few times, and some horse-trading results in final version of the original that can be agreed.

    But I do not know of a US jurisdiction where the legislature originates the budget. Although unincorporated counties might since they typically do not have a chief executive in the same sense. Only just thought of that.

  11. Leaving aside whether the national budgeting scheme is appropriate to city budgeting, the U.S. President does not have true budgetary authority.

    In the U.S., the budget is created by Congress. Congress requires the President to submit an annual proposal, which is a bit like the State of the Nation. Congress takes the President’s suggestions into consideration when it writes the budget, but Congress writes the actual budget. Congress can ignore the President’s proposal or, as is often the case, use it as a framework in whole or in part. While the President may veto Congress’s overall budget, Congress can override the veto.

  12. The point is that Congress cannot write an alternative budget. Well they can but it won’t achieve anything. All they can do is vote and ask the President to change it

    If the President doesn’t agree then there is no budget and we get into a situation where the government starts to run out of money to pay the bills. We’ve seen that already.

    Not saying Congress are powerless here, but the initiatives for a budget always come from the exec branch.

  13. So if congress votes to approve or deny the President’s budget, how is it that you think that the President has “budgetary authority” ?

  14. The national budget is drawn up by the President and then voted on by Congress.

    The California budget is drawn up by the Governor and then voted on by the Assembly/Senate

    The SF budget is drawn up by the Mayor and voted on by the Board

    The answer to your question is Yes.

  15. This is a good idea. It is very difficult to plan, contract and manage annual budgets in large bureaucracies. This can also curb the “end of the fiscal year spending sprees”, assuming they still exist (this happens when departments are compelled to spend any unspent funds at the end of the fiscal year or see their future budgets cut by the amount unspent).

    But because politics play into this, I would remove the budgets of the Planning Department and the Mayor’s office from the 2-year cycle.

  16. In every jurisdiction that I have lived, budgetary authority lies with the executive and not the legislature. The legislature can make suggestions for amendments but the budget derives from the gut at the top, where the buck stops.

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