Following a meager five-point victory against a bumbling opponent and facing an 18-month budget deficit estimated at $35 billion, Gray Davis will be sworn in this month for his second term as governor. He will govern a state whose voters are perfectly happy with a suburban lifestyle, at least according to the polls.
So it would not seem likely that Davis is in a position to do anything innovative or trailblazing in the area of land use planning and growth policy during his second term.
Yet there is probably more second-tier scuttlebutt about growth going on in Sacramento these days than at any time in recent history. Sacramento is overwhelmingly Democratic, which increases the chances that growth policy will be substantially altered. And as a lame-duck politician — he's termed-out as governor and has already announced that he will not run for president in 2004 — Davis may well be tempted by that dangerous political phenomenon known as "legacy time."
In other words, something might happen on growth policy during the second Davis Administration in spite of the circumstances.
Success in other states
Davis is neither a visionary nor a policy wonk, and he is one of the most risk-averse politicians in recent American history. These characteristics are almost exactly the opposite of most governors during the last 30 years who have taken on growth as an issue. Maryland's Parris Glendening, for example, was a true policy wonk. A former government professor at the University of Maryland who had won narrowly the first time out, Glendening fully expected his "smart growth" effort the further weaken his chances for re-election. In the end, it did not and he won re-election easily.
Furthermore, Davis's administration has never made growth per se a major issue — at least, the governor has never framed the growth issue in a comprehensive and coherent way. His predecessor, Pete Wilson, who was regarded as a growth management guru during his mayoral days in San Diego, tried hard to frame the growth issues coherently and comprehensively, though he proved unable (or unwilling) to do much about it before he left office four years ago. And even Davis's opponent Bill Simon, who ran probably the worst gubernatorial campaign in recent California history, put out a coherent position paper that took on the issues in a sweeping fashion.
As the first Democratic governor in 16 years, Davis was able to bring a collection of interesting growth policy thinkers into his administration. Caltrans chief Jeff Morales has reoriented the transportation agency around urban planning. Julie Bornstein, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, is a strong advocate who has been innovative. Resources Secretary Mary Nichols is an experienced urban environmentalist who understands growth issues well. Even the Health and Human Services Secretary, Grantland Johnson, is an experienced and knowledgeable growth policymaker because of his long experience as a Sacramento city council member and county supervisor. How many welfare czars know what a lot split is?
The fact that all these Davis appointees are interested in growth is one of the reasons that the issue won't go away. Another is the fact that the Democratic legislature won't let go of it either. The Smart Growth Caucus is not overpowering politically, but it has gained enough strength to get some bills to Davis's desk. And a final factor is that the voters — even though they are happy with suburban living, according to the latest Public Policy Institute of California poll — keep approving big bond issues that are sure to shape the state's future growth patterns.
The net result of all these forces is that Gray Davis has been handed two potentially strong and powerful tools to shape growth policy in the state no matter how big the state budget deficit is. The first is AB 857, the bill that requires state agencies to integrate their capital spending consistently around a set of "smart growth" principles (see CP&DR, October 2002). The second is the tens of billions of dollars in state bond funds that voters have approved for schools, open space, housing, and other facilities important to future growth.
Conceptually, the new law and all the bond money form the outlines of a California version of the Maryland smart growth strategy — a coherent policy of state investments to direct future growth that does not step on local land-use decision-making powers. More practically, they are ultimately about the use of power and money at the state level. For whatever he may lack in vision, wonkiness, and guts, Gray Davis understands how to use power and money in Sacramento to accomplish goals that are important to him.
So far, the Davis administration has talked an impressive line about implementing AB 857, which calls for the state to make infrastructure investments based on promoting infill, encouraging compact development, and protecting environmental and agricultural resources. The Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has been on the conference circuit since fall telling local planners and electeds that the administration is serious about the bill. (AB 857 also dovetails with an ongoing General Plan guidelines revision that OPR is preparing.) At this point, Davis has put OPR in the hands of Tal Finney, a high-energy, high-level political operative who is close to Davis and his inner circle.
A home run for bonds?
Using the bond funds to effect change in state growth policy will be trickier. The vast majority of the money is earmarked for schools, and as Glendening discovered in Maryland, the school bureaucracy is more resistant to attaching smart growth strings than even the pavement crowd. Some of the other bond money — open space, for example — is already earmarked for specific projects or will go to local governments on a formula basis. Further, the bonds came out of the Legislature with certain rules and expectations that were shaped largely by Senate leader John Burton, who is the most powerful legislator in Sacramento, but not one particularly interested in growth policy.
But to an extent, bond funds can be used to leverage a certain growth pattern. Bond money could even reinforce the policy choices created by AB 857. Davis appears perfectly capable of using these levers if he wants to.
The question is whether he wants to. During his second term, Davis will almost certainly be obsessed by two things that would seem to be in contradiction to one another: The budget deficit and his legacy. It is difficult to imagine how a strong growth policy fits into either one of these obsessions.
There is always the argument that smarter growth policy will reduce infrastructure expense and, therefore, cost the state less money. But recent experience suggests that during bad budget times, California fiscal conservatives would rather not spend infrastructure money at all. Given the fact that he will be out of office by 2007, Davis will almost certainly choose not to build things, rather than decide to build them smarter or most cost-effectively. Put another way, Davis likely will implement short-term solutions rather than address the long-term problem. He would not be the first governor to follow this path.
As far as the legacy goes, the recent open space bonds provide the governor with an opportunity. It will be very tempting to build the legacy with a few high-profile open space purchases, such as Ahmanson Ranch adjacent to Los Angeles (see CP&DR Insight, December 2002). It's more difficult for a lame-duck governor whose general fund is evaporating to make strategic open space decisions that protect habitat or farmland and guide growth in a reasoned manner — especially when those decisions fail to generate headlines, and might even anger people.
So, can we expect to see a comprehensive growth strategy emerge during the next four years? Maybe. But it is more likely that we will see a lot of muddling through. A few bills here and there will inch things forward, and smart growth moles in the administration will embed smart growth values in a bunch of small programs or bond criteria. Given a governor who received less than half the vote and a $30 billion-plus deficit, maybe that is the best we can expect.
Everybody always loves to complain about the California Environmental Quality Act, but despite all the complaining we don't now much about how effective it really is and what all the CEQA activity adds up to. >>read more
Since Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement a few weeks ago, he has been hailed - and reviled - as the Court's "great liberal voice" of the past couple of decades. But especially in land use, Stevens' legacy rests with not only his ardent support of government regulatory power, but also his skill in mustering five votes, on a pretty conservative court, in favor of aggressive use of land use regulation.
The old saying in government is that in order to understand what's going on, you've got to follow the money. In local planning throughout California, that's becoming increasingly easy to do. Local government revenues - property tax, sales tax, development fees, redevelopment funds - are in steep decline.
The distance between California's growing budget problems and California's ambitious environmental protection agenda continues to increase.
The consequences of the state's chronic budget deficit – currently $20 billion per year or more with no end in sight – continue to chew up everything and everybody in its path: local governments, transit agencies, the prison system, welfare recipients, school districts.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been a Republican with a twist. As the governor enters his final year – attempting to deal both with economic woes and an ambitious environmental agenda – it appears that nothing has changed. He is going after the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in his own way. It's legacy time for the governor. For better or worse, the Schwarzenegger approach to skinning CEQA may be part of his legacy.
If predictions about the impact of global warming are even half right, a lot of us are going to be quite literally swimming – or at least wading – through our daily lives in 30 or 40 years. Yet in the current debate about how the state should approach "adaptation" strategies, all parties are crouched in their typically unhelpful postures.
Sometime this year or next year, Congress will probably pass a climate change bill that tries to mimic SB 375's link between transportation patterns and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And the bill will probably generate billions of dollars by capping emissions and placing a market value on them. But it is doubtful Congress use the money to invest in the transportation improvements and land use changes required to reduce automobile travel.
California government never fails to amuse. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears poised to eliminate his own Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and nobody – not even the state's planners – is rushing to the beleaguered office's defense. Yet throughout Sacramento, vultures are hovering, because while OPR itself may not be worth saving, the carcass appears to have value.
The conventional wisdom is that Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't make a whole lot of difference, because there's not much meaningful ideological distance between her and her predecessor, Justice David Souter. So, the party line goes, the court will still be stuck in the familiar 5-4 or 4-5 split, depending on how Justice Anthony Kennedy is feeling that day. But there's a debate brewing as to whether that's really the case in land use and property rights law.
Now that the age of greenhouse gas emissions reduction is upon us, I think there's an important point worth making: Government agencies in California can try to comply with SB 375 – or they can focus on reducing driving. There is a lot of overlap between the two, but they are not exactly the same thing.
There's never been a weirder time to try to do planning in California.
On the one hand, the state has made climate change a major priority – and it's driving local government efforts in a hundred different ways, ranging from greenhouse gas analyses in environmental documents to switching out light bulbs in city corporation yards.
On the other hand, the state is cutting back all over the place because of the ever-more-dismal budget crisis. And this is going to make it hard for local governments to meet the requirements the state is laying out.
SB 375 is now law, but another year and a half will pass before the California Air Resources Board adopts the follow-up numerical regional targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. This puts California's cities and counties in a pretty big bind: How can they adopt plans for the future that will conform with the climate change law if they don't know what standard they are going to have to comply with?