S.F. Voters Could Tax Twitter, Other Tech Companies

Voters in November will have the chance to declare their love, or lack thereof, for the tech industry – often labeled the sole source of the death of the city’s soul.

Supervisor Eric Mar, with the support of colleague Aaron Peskin, is expected to introduce a ballot measure today at the Board of Supervisors that would, essentially, bring back a tax eliminated by the city five years ago, according to the SF Examiner.

The Fair Share – Homeless and Housing Impact Tech Tax would generate some $120 million a year by imposing a 1.5 percent tax on tech company payrolls. (Recall that the city's controversial “Twitter tax break” was an exemption on the payroll tax available to firms who relocated to Mid-Market, before the city did away with payroll taxes altogether).

And that’s where things get sticky.

[jump] Revenue would go toward housing and homeless needs, the Examiner reported. And while those of-the-moment issues might help sway voters, the measure would need two-thirds approval to pass since the money is earmarked for specific uses.

Beyond that, the city eliminated its payroll tax – the last city in California to have one – in 2012 in favor of a gross receipts tax that is friendlier to tech companies but harsher on other industries, like the financial sector.

The year before, Mayor Ed Lee famously gave Twitter a payroll tax break in order to keep the company in San Francisco (specifically in the Mid-Market area where the city was hoping to start a neighborhood awakening). Other companies that moved into the area would also receive the tax break – and at the time angel investor Ron Conway predicted it would lead to a tech boom.

Fast forward five years and Conway was right. San Francisco has one of its healthiest economies in decades, with an unemployment rate of 3.1 percent, and is considered the capital of tech.

And passage of the tax might not be that far-fetched. As the Examiner noted, tech has taken some hits recently. Peskin, for instance, won his District 3 supervisor seat last year over Lee appointee Julie Christensen, who enjoyed backing from tech folks as well. Supervisors Jane Kim and Scott Wiener, popular with the industry, are in a tight race for a state Senate seat.

And although voters last November rejected tougher regulations for Airbnb, the board recently passed an ordinance that would force the company to police its listings for compliance with city regulations or else face fines (Airbnb is challenging the ordinance).

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