Lighten Up by Lighting Up
Our little town is bifurcating along two ideological lines: those who make their living off visitors, and those who don’t. On one end, we had the anti-development summit last month, composed of 15 invitation-only groups, conspiring to neuter the redevelopment of some dormant properties. On the other, we have the Chamber of Commerce and Visit Laguna, each recently holding their own summits on economic development and touting their success in attracting visitors.
A 17-page report written by resident John Thomas, a “tax the visitor” advocate, alleges that residents subsidize visitors by $20 million, and that visitor services are largely responsible for our budget deficit. Yet in Visit Laguna’s 2018 Annual Report, Chairman of the Board Mark Orgill wrote that the $18 million generated by visitor taxes makes many of our resident services free. So who is right? Depends on how you look at it.
“Tax the visitors” see tourism as a scourge on our quality of life, and they want to create barriers to entry. John’s report recommends increasing our rising parking fees even more and putting metered spaces all over neighborhoods. He proposes adding a $10 admission tax to summer art festivals, and additionally taxing bars, restaurants and spas under the guise of “transient occupancy tax.” He also suggests raising business license fees, taxing gross business receipts, and somehow increasing the tax on utilities used by visitors.
The only problem is who will pay for it in the end. Not the wealthy business owners or landlords. It will be passed through to the users and purveyors of these services, many of whom are us. And that will make living and running a business here even more difficult.
The sensible way to fix our deficit is not by discouraging people from visiting because of the excessive cost, but to reduce the budget and fix the pensions at City Hall. And to have visitors spend money on things that will actually provide a benefit for us and reduce their impact. Like a shared electric bike and scooter system, more public and multi-modal transport, and periphery parking. Plus keeping pass-through commuters out with a congestion pricing tax.
And now there is an opportunity to generate massive revenues for the city on a resident- and visitor-serving business that is impervious to the vicissitudes of online shopping. I’m talking of course about that medicine we’ve all been increasing since Trump took office: cannabis!
Even though our civic leaders railroaded dispensaries out of town (despite our city’s fervent support for legalization), once again the more progressive minds in Sacramento may prevail to force Laguna to change course. Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco has introduced AB1356, which forces cities that voted for Proposition 64 by at least 50 percent to permit dispensaries. “AB1356 is necessary because local elected officials are ignoring the will of voters by not licensing pot shops,” Ting said.
He couldn’t be more right in Laguna. Proposition 64 (The Adult Use of Marijuana Act) won statewide 57 percent to 42 percent, but in Laguna it was 62 percent to 37 percent, nearly two out of three voters. Yet the wine swilling adjudicators at City Hall decided it was bad for Laguna. One member of the public even remarked, “First they’ll come for the weed. Then they’ll come into your neighborhoods. Then they’ll come into your homes.” Yeah, right. Actually, first they’ll come for the weed, and then they’ll come for the restaurants. Then they’ll Uber home, have a bowl of ice cream, and pass out. And, unlike alcohol, cannabis continues to prove an effective protocol in treating a myriad of diseases. As for the hysteria over crime, that has not been the case in Santa Ana, the only city so far to legalize it in Orange County. They generated $6 million in taxes in 2018, and are projecting a $9 million windfall next year.
Based on population, Laguna would only qualify for two shops. Put them at either end of town to prevent traffic circulation through downtown. Residents can Uber or bike over. It certainly beats the carbon footprint of going to Santa Ana, or having unsavory deliveries to your home.
Of course, all of this can go away because, according to AB1356, cities can still put it to a public vote. But this time, Laguna can fully and responsibly vet the location, safety and security issues, and serve up a fair and balanced proposal. It’s time we grow up and get serious about the positive effects of this cosmic plant medicine, and tamp down on the market. I guarantee if we put the anti-growth coalition in a room with the pro-development people, and shared bong rips all around, not only would we be nicer to each other and likely find common ground, but we’d also have a whole lot more fun doing it.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX93.5 and can be reached at [email protected]