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San Francisco voters approve taxes on highly paid CEOs, big businesses

Tents occupied by homeless people line a sidewalk on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco.
Tents occupied by homeless people line a sidewalk on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco in April.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

In an effort to address economic disparities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco voters have overwhelmingly approved several tax measures targeting property owners and big businesses with CEOs who are paid far more than their average workers.

Under a newly approved law, any company whose top executive earns 100 times more than its average worker will pay an extra 0.1% surcharge on its annual business-tax payment. If a CEO makes 200 times more than the average employee, the surcharge increases to 0.2%, and so on per multiple of 100.

Voters also agreed to sweeping business-tax changes that will lead to a higher tax rate for many tech companies and a higher transfer tax on property sales valued between $10 million and $25 million.

“We’re not gonna shed any tears if penthouse dwellers have to cough up,” the San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters wrote in its voter guide.

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The results “show that San Franciscans are concerned about growing economic inequality,” city Supervisor Matt Haney, the author of the measure titled Overpaid Executive Tax, said Wednesday. “The very wealthy are gaining more and more. They’ve gotten much richer during the pandemic, while everyone else has remained stagnant.”

“We need the wealth that has been generated in the city to be shared more broadly with workers and residents,” he said.

Wage inequality has risen more in California cities than in the metropolitan areas of any other state, with seven of the nation’s 15 most unequal cities located in the Golden State.

Critics call the surcharge a blatant attempt at redistribution of wealth and criticized raising business taxes in the middle of a recession.

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Since March, coronavirus restrictions have shut down critical elements of San Francisco’s vibrant economy. Tourists are scarce, and legions of workers in tech and in the city’s main business and financial districts have left to work remotely. Office vacancy rates went up while rents in the prohibitively expensive city dropped to their lowest in years.

“The middle of a pandemic-fueled shutdown is the wrong time to raise taxes,” said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the business advocacy group Bay Area Council. “The drip, drip, drip of new general taxes is going to erode the already shaky foundations of local economies decimated by the worst downturn in generations.”

The CEO tax is expected to generate between $60 million to $140 million per year. Haney said he wants most of the money directed towards health services. He dismisses fears that the surcharge will drive companies out of the city, saying the tax is modest in comparison to the cost of moving a business.

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He said he hopes the tax will drive companies to reexamine their compensation structures and will ultimately be adopted on a national level.

The tax is somewhat similar to an executive-pay surcharge passed by the city council in Portland, Ore., nearly four years ago. San Francisco city leaders considered the idea several years ago, and a 2014 state proposal to lower taxes for companies whose executives were paid less than 100 times the median worker did not pass in the California Legislature.

“The idea didn’t get a lot of traction because people in San Francisco didn’t feel it made sense to tax CEOs,” political consultant Jim Ross said. “But now you’re seeing a big segregation between the have[s] and have-nots as executives get absurdly paid while others are struggling.”


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