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Conjuring to Get the Ghost of Willie Brown

Politics: With ex-speaker no longer around to protect his hometown in the Assembly, a Republican pushes through a bill to strip $87 million in funding from San Francisco. The Senate doesn't go along, but it may later.

June 05, 1996|MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Now that long-reigning Democratic Speaker Willie Brown is safely out of town, it's payback time for conservative Bernie Richter.

Literally.

Assemblyman Richter (R-Chico) steered a bill through the lower house last week that seeks to spread around to 42 counties a bonanza of $87 million a year by raiding the tax base of one city--San Francisco.

The city by the bay, maintained Richter, has been hogging more than its rightful share of property tax revenues for 17 years. The largess was made possible, he said, by powerful friends in high places in Sacramento, notably Brown, who is now San Francisco's mayor.

Richter, while wearing a vengeance-is-mine kind of smile, said he acted purely out of fairness in pushing his bill (AB 2167) to a 44-27 Assembly victory Thursday. Though its contents later were stripped in the state Senate, the issue is likely to reemerge this summer in a two-house conference committee.

But whether it survives or not, Richter's perceived revenge already has succeeded in touching the sensitive nerve endings of all Assembly members with talk of regional tax sharing, ideological left-right rivalries and, hovering over a divided house, "the ghost of Willie Brown."

With his customary bombast, Richter said the methods dreamed up by liberals long ago to divvy up property taxes were "grotesque . . . outrageous." At the expense of poor, rural counties, Richter said, the first call on the county tax revenue pool went to jurisdictions with high assessed property values and over-generous social services costs--perfect conditions for "taxploitation by San Francisco's commissars."

First put in place after passage of property tax-slashing Proposition 13 in 1978 and adjusted thereafter as the state assumed broader powers over county finances, the existing method of apportioning tax revenues is based on how much a county collects and how much it needs to run its programs.

And, says Richter, on how much clout can be applied in Sacramento.

It is a "formula that did for justice and fairness what Genghis Khan and the Huns did for civilization," Richter declared.

Under his bill, a new formula based on fixed amounts per capita would determine how much property tax revenue the state would return to counties. San Francisco--a unique city and county all in one--would get $399 per head instead of the current $513, which works out to an $87-million reduction.

Even at that, Richter said, "I could have taken them down lower. But I didn't want people to say I was trying to screw them."

Not so, said Brown in San Francisco: "I think Richter is out to screw San Francisco strictly based upon his exposure to me as a member of the Assembly."

On the receiving end, meanwhile, Richter's stirring of the tax pot would send San Francisco's millions to all but 15 of the state's 57 remaining counties--and thereby add a new layer of political consequences for dozens of lawmakers. Richter underscored the point by circulating a chart showing exactly how much each county would receive and exactly which Assembly and Senate members represented those counties.

Some large counties, such as Los Angeles and Ventura, would not be affected by Richter's proposal. Orange County, however, would stand to gain $2.6 million a year.

But a dilemma was presented for, say, Democrats from San Diego County who are opposed in principle to the hit on San Francisco, but whose county would benefit the most from the bill--a pure-gravy $13.2 million a year.

Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) went back and forth on the issue, saying at first that she was against the "single county" component as unfair, then voting yes on the bill, then yes a second time, and now saying she's happy to see it may be substantially changed in future hearings.

Other counties that were once rural but now have attracted large suburban populations fared next-best in the Richter formula, led by San Bernardino and including a number of Central Valley counties--including Richter's Butte County, which would pick up an extra $3 million a year.

Democratic opponents were quick to brand the Richter measure as mean-spirited revenge. "It's one of the more creative public embezzlement schemes" ever to rise off the Assembly floor, said Assemblyman Tom Hannigan (D-Benicia).

Enactment could force San Francisco to make drastic cuts in its police or Sheriff's Department, or cause libraries to close, said the successor to Willie Brown's Assembly seat, Democrat Carole Migden.

There are good reasons, she said, for San Francisco's proportion of property tax revenues to exceed other counties', among them the fact that it's a city and a county with extra expenses. Also, she said, less money goes to San Francisco schools and more to other services because it's a city with a low proportion of schoolchildren.

And, striking at the heart of Richter's suspected motives, Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame) asked the Assembly last week: "When is the ghost of Willie Brown ever going to leave this chamber?"

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