The late Democratic boss and Assembly Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh got credit for the aphorism "Money is the mother's milk of politics" back in the 1970s, but its truth has never been more painful than for San Diego Republican business types and labor union bigwigs trying to qualify a hotel tax hike for this November's ballot.
Hubris appeared to trump common sense as the sponsors of the putative initiative, who formed Yes! For a Better San Diego last October, spent more than half of the funds they raised through April on political and public relations consultants linked to Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
That left them short of cash to pay the going $10 and up - plus contractor overhead - to collect each of the required 71,600 valid signatures from registered voters in the city to put the measure up for a vote.
According to an April 30 filing, 42.5 percent, or $136,585, of the campaign's expenditures during the reporting period from October through March went to Arno Petition Consultants, the northern California firm doing the collecting, with $37,653 still owed.
On the other hand, Rick Manter, a onetime Faulconer co-worker at the PR and lobbying firm of NCG Porter Novelli, picked up $17,888, with travel expenses owed of $18,551. Manolatos Nelson Murphy, a PR outfit run by local insiders, got $33,136, and influence peddler Southwest Strategies was paid $17,500. Another PR consultant, Rebelle Communications, got $40,000.
From April through June 28, backers of the controversial measure raised $818,525, according to contribution disclosures filed with the city clerk's office, bringing the grand total of contributions gathered since October to a little more than $1.3 million. To the politically uninitiated, it's an impressive sum, but peanuts in the game of professional signature gathering.
In 2016, Arno got a total of $1.9 million from the Chargers during two months from April 18 through June 15 collecting signatures for the team's ultimately doomed ballot measure for a new downtown stadium. Friends of SDSU, San Diego State alumni and Mission Valley property owners pushing an SDSU takeover of the former Qualcomm Stadium site, forked over $1.2 million to AAP Holding Company, Inc, of Westlake Village, another signature-gathering firm, to get their measure before voters.
The would-be tourist tax hikers, their coffers at levels still short of those marks, have been forced to delay turning in their petitions to the county Registrar of Voters.
The lack of cash has been so dire that ex-San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders, Faulconer's political mentor and master of big money referendum drives here, including those that threw out the Barrio Logancommunity plan and delayed a city minimum wage ordinance, has been calling for volunteers.
"If each of our Board members helps to gather 50 signatures through work, friends, and family, we can ensure this important initiative is placed on the November ballot,” said Sanders in an email reported June 27 by the Union-Tribune.
But grassroots are short at the Sanders-run Chamber, accustomed to buying its voter clout with millions of dollars from Washington-based military contractors.
Inside observers predict that tax hike tax proponents will have no choice except to keep knocking on out-of-town doors for more cash if they are to have any hope of pulling off their initiative bid, let alone convincing voters to approve it in November.
The flow of political cash has aroused fears in some quarters that deals are being reached in the mayor's office for those business donors who ante up the most.
Sempra Energy gave $100,000 on June 12, and Geo Group, the private prison conglomerate that runs a downtown lockup for the federal government, coughed up $25,000 on May 10. Dart Container Corp of Mason, Michigan, battling a proposed city ban on Styrofoam plates and cups, gave $10,000 on May 30.
Even if the hotel tax measure manages to get on this fall's ballot, proponents will face the challenge of coming up with the millions required to persuade two-thirds of those voting to say yes. An attempt to convince state courts to accept a simple majority vote for passage, if that could be garnered as a fall-back, would be costly, requiring Faulconer and Sanders to tap a widening circle of special interests.
And the labor council is likely to become much less of a factor following last week's U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 ruling outlawing forced dues to finance the political activity of public employee unions. Most recently, the group gave $10,000 to the current tax hike effort June 27 and came up with $20,000 on April 27.