Are the stars aligning on growth policy in Sacramento, for better or worse?

It feels a little funny to be writing this story yet again. I have been writing it for 16 years, yet the state growth policy universe has changed little. This time, though, there might be something to it.

Over the past month, the Senate's new leader, Don Perata (D-Oakland), has made a lot of noise about growth. He has expressed concern that sprawl and congestion will swallow the state. He has stated that retaining the middle class is his biggest concern. He has combined the Senate's housing and transportation committees - an unprecedented move - and appointed the Senate's leading local government policy wonk, Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), to chair it.

What's more, Perata has mentioned the unmentionable. “The ultimate issue is going to come down to who controls zoning,” he stated in a memo obtained by Associated Press. “Should the state have a right to zone parts of California to maximize housing opportunities and decrease traffic congestion?”

Needless to say, this suggestion has not gone down well, either with local officials or local editorialists. Ever since the AP story ran, Perata has been ripped from north to south for even suggesting it. Even though the state theoretically has the power to reclaim zoning - and has done so from time to time, most famously with the Coastal Commission - the idea of local land-use control is so sacrosanct that almost nobody ever puts it on the table for discussion.

The last politician to do so was Willie Brown, then the Assembly speaker, during the growth-control battles of 1988. At the time, Brown suggested that maybe cities and counties should be abolished and replaced by regional governments, thus freeing the land use process from parochialism. It was never clear why Brown floated the idea. Was he staking out an extreme position on purpose? Was he tying to create a powerful regional body he could get elected to in case term limits passed?

In any event, Brown's idea did not go anywhere. In fact, it probably was responsible for killing the concept of a state growth management law, which was very much in play at the time. (Hmmm. Maybe that was his goal!)

Perata's moves might not be important if the Schwarzenegger administration were not moving in the same direction. But Business, Transportation, and Housing Secretary Sunne McPeak has been making the same kind of noise.

For the last year, McPeak has been stumping the state trying to put housing on the agenda. She has proposed that housing elements cover 20 years instead of only five. And, like Perata, she has drawn housing and transportation policy closer together. With both Caltrans and the Department of Housing and Community Development in her agency, she has used Caltrans's deep pockets to help pay for housing policy. Currently, the agency has contracted with UC Berkeley's Institute for Urban and Regional Development to do a statewide infill housing capacity analysis - and the project is overseen by a Caltrans employee. (Full disclosure: Prior to Arnold Schwarzenegger's election, my firm, Solimar Research Group, received a contract to work on a different Caltrans grant dealing with infill housing.)

So, let's add this up: The head of the Senate - a former Alameda County supervisor - is making noises about having the state play a more aggressive role in land use decisions about housing. He has created a committee that deals with housing and transportation and put a former Contra Costa County Supervisor (Torlakson) in charge of that committee. Meanwhile, the Business, Transportation, and Housing secretary appears to have an aggressive housing agenda, and she's also a former CoCo County Supervisor. (In fact, she and Torlakson served together on that board for 13 years.) This looks to me like some stars falling into place.

But for both the Legislature and the administration, the basic issue is the same: How do you align housing and transportation policy? This is just about the most difficult land use issue you can face.

Everybody agrees that transportation policy is mostly a state responsibility. In fact, several of the newspaper editorials that took Perata to task about housing acknowledged this, and noted that the state has significant influence over growth patterns for that reason.

At the same time, housing remains a treasured local prerogative. Local resistance to the state's role in housing elements ranges from strong to fanatical. Anybody who even gently suggests that there are broader interests at stake in housing gets skewered, as Perata did.

Yet the one lesson that has emerged from the whole greenfield/infill debate over the last decade is that housing is part of the solution to the transportation problem - especially in a state where housing is extremely expensive and traffic is extremely congested. That's why Caltrans is interested in infill housing.

So Perata, McPeak, and Torlakson are all angling toward the same thing - how to nudge housing and transportation policy closer together in an environment where a strong-arm move on housing will cause a near-revolution among local governments. And, as is usually the case these days in California, the answer would appear to boil down to the question of whether this issue is on one guy's short list.

The guy, of course, is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since his election a year ago, Schwarzenegger has posted a good record of getting something done once it gets on his short list - the recovery bond, worker's comp changes, killing Proposition 72. It is also worth noting that most of the items on the short list have been things that business has been clamoring for and Democrats have opposed.

It is pretty clear that, through her strong rhetoric and relentless stumping around the state, McPeak's goal has been to get housing onto Schwarzenegger's short list. Now she has an important Democratic ally in the Legislature, who is casting housing as an issue of retaining the middle class. Furthermore, even though the Legislature is undeniably dominated by liberal Democrats, it is clear that the environmentalists who have helped block housing policy changes are on the way out. They are gradually being replaced by a new generation of politicians - many of them Latino - who have an agenda of upward mobility: jobs, schools, health insurance … and maybe housing.

From a Sacramento inside-baseball perspective, it is difficult to see where this goes. In Sacramento, this looks mostly like a continuation of the fight over housing elements. The interest groups have been locked in a stalemate over housing elements since the Deukmejian administration, and one of those interest groups - local governments - is feeling empowered these days after an 84% “yes” vote on the revenue protections of Proposition 1A.

But the one thing we have learned during the last year is that inside baseball is not what it used to be in Sacramento. The emerging stars in the Legislature have a somewhat different agenda, and the big star in the governor's office can change the shape of the galaxy - if it's on his short list. So maybe the stars will align this time.