All posts by Robert Cruickshank

Progressives Didn’t Cause the San Francisco Housing Crisis

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you know that San Francisco is facing an affordable housing crisis. This crisis is not new. It’s been around for at least 40 years, and the city has faced a housing shortage for at least 70 years.

The question that many are asking is not only “how do we fix this?” but, in order to jockey for position in how to answer it, they’re also asking “whose fault is this crisis?” Too often, the SF housing crisis is used to attack progressives from the right, in the service of free market solutions – even though, as the historical evidence makes clear, this crisis was not their fault.

Progressives have spent the last two decades fighting to make SF more progressive. Had they been listened to, perhaps SF might still be affordable today.

The most recent iteration of the “who made SF unaffordable?” discussion was kicked off today by the widely respected Gabriel Metcalf of SPUR. Writing at CityLab Metcalf argued that the roots of SF’s housing crisis lay in progressive anti-growth policies:

San Francisco progressives chose to stick with their familiar stance of opposing new development, positioning themselves as defenders of the city’s physical character. Instead of forming a pro-growth coalition with business and labor, most of the San Francisco Left made an enduring alliance with home-owning NIMBYs. It became one of the peculiar features of San Francisco that exclusionary housing politics got labeled “progressive.” (Organized labor remained a major political force throughout this time period, and has allied with both pro-growth and anti-growth forces, depending on the issue.) Over the years, these anti-development sentiments were translated into restrictive zoning, the most cumbersome planning and building approval process in the country, and all kinds of laws and rules that make it uniquely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to add housing in San Francisco.

This is the common argument about SF – it’s expensive because progressives got mad at developers and stopped new growth from happening in order to preserve the city in amber, with no thought given to new residents.

But is that actually what happened?

Let’s take a look back at history. The first thing to keep in mind is that by 1960, San Francisco was mostly built out already. The Sunset should probably not have been packed full with two-story homes. But progressives didn’t make that decision.

The modern era of progressive San Francisco begins in the early 1960s, and one cannot understand the progressive approach to SF housing policy without looking at that era, as I did a decade ago for research on a never-completed PhD dissertation.

Like most US cities, SF had its share of residential segregation. In the City, this meant that African Americans lived in the Fillmore and in the Bayview. The Fillmore’s once-grand Victorians had become slum housing as a result of overcrowding and poverty, results of America’s ongoing racist distribution of wealth and power.

In order to try and add more housing supply to SF, as well as to clear the slums, the San Francisco Housing Authority, under the leadership of Justin Herman, proposed to redevelop most of the Fillmore. They planned to use federal funds to demolish the existing private housing stock and replace it with a mix of publicly owned housing and privately built housing.

No provision was made by the SFHA for the relocation of the tenants during this years-long process. At a time when California voters had just repealed the state’s fair housing law in 1964, this was a direct threat to the ability of people of color to remain in San Francisco.

African American residents protested vehemently. They formed groups such as the Western Addition Community Organization to fight against what they damned as “Negro removal.” They failed. Ironically, the public housing projects built as a result of the SFHA plan are responsible for keeping any black residents in the Fillmore at all – yet according to the SFHA’s own estimates from the late 1960s, most residents displaced from the Fillmore project areas left SF altogether.

The resistance in the Fillmore inspired similar resistance in the Mission, then populated by a mix of Latino and Irish residents. Unlike the Fillmore, the Mission succeeded in fighting off redevelopment.

In the 1970s, San Francisco leaders began clearing out the affordable single resident occupancy buildings in SoMa to make way for the Yerba Buena Center project. The loss of thousands of SRO units, never replaced, was a major factor that contributed to the city’s sizable homeless population. In 1977 the famous battle over the International Hotel took place, where progressives rallied to defend Filipino renters who were facing displacement so that the landlord could redevelop the site.

These battles convinced progressive San Franciscans that the vulnerable populations of the city faced a very real threat to their homes from redevelopment, whether initiated by the private or public sector. Progressives generally don’t care about a wealthy single family homeowner. But they care very much about people of color and retirees losing their homes.

That is a challenging situation in San Francisco. Because the city is completely built out, any new housing supply comes at the expense of an existing use – often displacing existing residents.

This problem was exacerbated beginning in the mid-1970s by rising housing costs. That increase began before San Francisco’s population began to grow – as Metcalf’s own article explains, SF didn’t start to add population until after 1980. The rising rents were fueled by the national inflation that plagued the country in the 1970s.

SF residents voted to adopt rent control in 1979 in part to respond to this crisis as well as to respond to the passage of Proposition 13 – specifically to stop one landlord in particular, Angelo Sangiacomo, who refused to pass on property tax savings to renters.

Metcalf argues that progressives allied with NIMBYs to make it difficult if not impossible to add new housing supply in SF. But this misses the fundamental purpose and point of progressive housing activism in SF. The goal is to stop displacement – and given SF’s attributes, a free market approach won’t solve that.

Because SF is built out, and because land values began to rise in the mid-1970s, and because of macroeconomic policies that began to push investors to demand bigger profits from the private sector, this all meant that new construction in San Francisco was going to be expensive to build and therefore expensive to rent. The private sector was never all that interested in building housing for the poor or the low-income. And after 1980, the private sector certainly was not interested in building that kind of housing.

So for many progressive San Franciscans, private housing development was seen as a way to get rid of the leftists, the people of color, LGBT residents, and the poor. Stopping the loss of affordable housing became a priority.

However, this did not mean that SF progressives became anti-supply – or that they are responsible for the city’s present crisis.

Since Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated in 1978 by a right-wing former cop, SF has been governed by pro-business moderates. There has been only one exception to this, the four-year term of Art Agnos from 1987 to 1991, and it’s not clear whether he was more of a progressive or more of a NIMBY (in reality he appealed to both, but for different reasons).

Progressives haven’t held the SF mayor’s office in at least 24 years, by even the most charitable reading. Surely pro-business mayors like Frank Jordan, Willie Brown, and Gavin Newsom should be held accountable for the city’s housing crisis.

During the last two decades, SF progressives worked hard to advance their own solutions to the housing crisis. Those solutions always included new supply.

Take a look at Tom Ammiano’s housing policy in his 1999 campaign for mayor:

2) Make the Production and Preservation of Affordable Housing the Top Priority

Increasing housing opportunities that are affordable for San Franciscans of low and moderate incomes is a civic obligation to local residents who make up the foundation of our culture and economy. San Francisco currently has the worst of both worlds: market forces that give no consideration to the broader needs of the community and out-of-date regulation that interferes with development of housing of every type.

As mayor I will:

…Review and Reform Current Planning Guidelines that Stifle Increased Housing.

I will direct the Planning Department to report on Planning Code changes that will increase new housing in ways that are not detrimental to neighborhood character. I will promote a neighborhood-driven planning process to consider increasing density along established transit corridors in the eastern half of the City and implement the State statute that gives a “density bonus” to developments that set aside 25% of units for low income residents….

….Streamline the Permitting Process

The Ammiano administration will coordinate the permit processing and record-keeping of the Department of Building Inspection and the Planning Department, improving the approval and environmental review process for both the neighborhoods and developers, particularly non-profit developers. Neighborhood concerns will be accommodated before individual permit applications through Neighborhood Master Environmental Impact Reports. Public input will still be encouraged at scheduled hearings of relevant commissions.

While this isn’t the libertarian “abolish all zoning” fantasy that some in the tech industry demand today, it’s a far cry from the anti-growth platform that many imagine SF progressives to have held.

It wasn’t just Ammiano. Matt Gonzalez’s 2003 campaign for mayor had similar policies on housing that were pro-supply as well:

A balanced housing policy for San Francisco must include a commitment to increasing the supply of rental housing affordable to San Franciscans of all incomes. Increasing home ownership is a important goal, we will still need more affordable rental housing to meet current and future demand. Rent control is important for stabilizing housing and preventing displacement of existing tenants, but because of vacancy decontrols, assuring affordability requires that rental units are made permanently affordable through other means-inclusionary housing, which are permanently affordable units in market-rate developments, and construction or purchase of affordable rental units by nonprofit housing providers. As mayor, I will increase the supply of permanently affordable housing for San Franciscans of a range of incomes and household sizes.

I don’t know how much clearer it could be. Both Ammiano and Gonzalez, heroes and leaders of the SF left, were pro-supply. Had they been able to govern SF, we might have seen a different outcome. But even their options were limited, and their campaigns came 25 years after the housing affordability crisis first hit SF.

There are other problems with Metcalf’s argument, as Mark Hogan has explained. He shows how even Chris Daly, the arch-progressive of SF politics, helped deliver more housing supply:

Chris Daly (arguably one of the most “Progressive” politicians San Francisco has had in recent years) helped pave the way for the massive number of new units in SOMA by brokering a community impact deal in 2005, and these units are the majority of the housing that has been created in the last 10 years. The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which upzoned large areas on the east side of the City, was approved by a Progressive-majority Board of Supervisors. It should also be noted that most of the areas that have been upzoned are less wealthy and more dominated by renters than the areas that are primarily single family.

Hogan also challenges another part of Metcalf’s argument:

The line that keeps getting repeated that we should have been building 5,000 units a year is absurd taking into account the realities of development. The math makes sense in the simplest way possible, but we all know that no developer is going to build those units at the bottom of a recession (and the economy is always cyclical), and nobody 25 years ago would have predicted the level of in-migration and income inequality we have right now- even taking the population boom that started in 1980 into account. Far more units than that have been permitted in each boom and in most cases developers have declined to build them (or deferred them until the next cycle). The fact that they haven’t been built has more to do with economics than obstructionism.

Free market acolytes have seized on articles like Metcalf’s to try and discredit progressives and their values, and to advance their pet theory that if we just got rid of limits on height and density, or maybe even got rid of zoning altogether, SF’s housing woes would be solved. Longtime Calitics readers know that I have supported greater urban density and less restrictive housing policies for at least the last seven years. But not even Metcalf thinks that a free market approach will, on its own, solve the problem:

Let me say very clearly here that making it possible to add large amounts of housing supply in San Francisco would never have been enough by itself. A comprehensive agenda for affordability requires additional investments in subsidies for affordable housing. Given the realities of economic inequality, there are large numbers of people who would never be able to afford market rate housing, even in a better-functioning market.

And SPUR, which occupies a place in the SF political landscape that is hard to categorize, has a great set of ideas for how to make SF affordable again. There is much in those proposals for progressives to like.

Yet even SPUR’s proposals share many of the same elements of the plans Ammiano and Gonzalez advanced in their 1999 and 2003 campaigns. There is greater convergence between SPUR and progressives than might be assumed.

Ultimately SF is at the leading edge of a problem that is now facing all US cities. Urban America has become expensive. As we live in an era of increasing inequality, and in a time where macroeconomic policies favor investments that benefit the rich over those that benefit the poor or the middle, no market solution alone can solve the problem.

Government will be needed to help solve the crisis – through rent control, through subsidies, through an expansion of public housing stock, and through facilitation of private sector housing stock too. Progressives have been calling for that for years. They weren’t the ones in charge of SF when the crisis hit and they haven’t had full control over city government in over two decades.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the blame lies not with progressives, but with SF’s pro-business politicians, for whom solving the affordable housing crisis has never been a priority at all.

The Day the Sierra Club Opposed Funding Long-Term Carbon Emission Reductions

Originally posted at the California High Speed Rail Blog

You would think that California’s leading environmental organizations, who claim to be committed to fighting the climate crisis and reducing carbon emissions, would enthusiastically support Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to use 19% of annual cap-and-trade revenues to fund a major infrastructure project that reduces millions of tons of CO2 while also reducing other forms of air pollution. You would also think these organizations would be sure to do so when the climate denying right has targeted that project for destruction.

You would be wrong.

Sierra Club California, in an amazing and shocking move, has come out against the funding of long-term reductions in CO2 emissions. They plan to advocate against Governor Brown’s plan to fund HSR with cap-and-trade revenues, even though high speed rail is one of the best ways to reduce oil consumption and CO2 emissions – reasons why the California Air Resources Board has included HSR as part of its AB 32 scoping plans for over five years.

More in the extended…

Here’s the shocking quote:

“We still have an opportunity to make a difference on how bad climate change will be. And the way you do that will be to take all of the available resources, you spend them now on things that get you reductions now,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “If this had been a choice between the Golden Gate Bridge and you had the opportunity to stop typhoid at that very moment, I think the people of San Francisco would’ve stopped typhoid.”

Phillips is completely wrong here, displaying a line of thinking that will be fatal to the effort to address climate change if continued. The way we make a difference is to take all of the resources (subtract the word “available,” more on that in a moment) and spend them now on everything that can give you lasting, permanent reductions – especially those things that provide a permanently lower level of CO2 emissions.

Her analogy is absurd and displays the logic of austerity, a logic that makes it impossible to fight climate change. Austerity policies force people to choose between important priorities rather than funding everything by insisting you can only use the “available” resources rather than the total resources that exist in a society. Addressing climate change requires large sums of money to be spent, in the trillions, in order to avert a far more costly and deadly catastrophe. Anyone who plays into the logic of austerity, which says you can’t spend that money and have to pick and choose a few small things to do at the expense of other priorities, is espousing a logic that ensures we will not be able to do what is necessary to reduce CO2 emissions.

In the 1930s, if SF were facing a typhoid epidemic at the same time as construction were about to begin on the Golden Gate Bridge, the reaction would not have been to stop the bridge. Politicians would have said “well obviously we need to do both.”

But even that analogy is flawed. It suggests that Phillips does not see HSR as a tool in the fight against climate change. And that is very bad news. A more accurate analogy would be that SF is facing a typhoid epidemic and one of the leading public health advocates says “we only have so much available money, let’s spend it on addressing people’s symptoms now and not on finding a lasting cure.”

Despite Sierra Club California’s incredible argument, most others engaged in the fight to reduce CO2 emissions understands that we will lose unless we make major lifestyle changes that include the way we travel around the state of California. The California Air Resources Board, charged with implementing AB 32 and the cap-and-trade system, understands this quite well. In their investment plan for the cap-and-trade revenues, they make this very important statement when introducing the section that calls for spending part of those revenues on HSR:

Full implementation of existing State strategies will achieve the 2020 reduction target. However, extensive additional strategies are needed both to ensure ongoing maintenance of the 2020 limit – as population and related growth increase after 2020 – and to meet post-2020 goals.

Reaching the 2050 goal (80 percent below 1990 levels) will require far-reaching new approaches to how we plan our communities, how we move people and freight, how we power our State, how industries produce their products, how successful we are in treating waste as a source of energy, and how well we preserve California’s lands and natural resources that sequester carbon.

Sierra Club California is saying this is wrong, that you don’t have to do anything to ensure ongoing maintenance of the 2020 limit, and that we don’t need to worry about reaching the 2050 goal. They are displaying a stunning lack of foresight and a contempt of long-term planning that will undo all of the gains California is making when it comes to climate change.

To make matters worse, Phillips is playing into the hands of people who are determined to stop the fight against climate change. Republicans and Tea Party members in California and in Congress are looking for ways to stop the high speed rail project. You can bet they will pounce on her statements and use them to attack HSR across the country. “Even the Sierra Club doesn’t want this funded!” they’ll say.

Assemblymember Jeff Gorell, a Ventura Republican, is running against Congresswoman Julia Brownley this year. Brownley is a Democrat who voted for high speed rail in the summer of 2012. Republicans attacked her for that vote, but failed to keep her out of Congress. Gorell yesterday filed an initiative to overturn Prop 1A and stop the HSR project. It won’t go anywhere since it lacks funding to get onto the ballot. But it does suggest that Gorell plans to make an issue of HSR this year. Sierra Club California, by opposing Brown’s cap-and-trade funding plan, has just undermined Brownley and handed a big win to Gorell.

Another environmental group that should know better is the Greenlining Institute:

Likewise, the Greenlining Institute does not oppose the rail project but will push lawmakers to devote cap-and-trade money to transit operations, spokesman Bruce Mirken said. The organization sponsored successful legislation two years ago requiring that a quarter of the greenhouse gas revenue be targeted to low-income and minority communities most affected by pollution.

“High-speed rail would not have been on our priority list,” Mirken said.

Then Greenlining Institute has some seriously flawed priorities. One of the worst forms of greenlining in the state is the location of freeways near low-income communities and communities of color. This problem is especially bad in the Central Valley, where emissions from vehicles is one of the leading causes of asthma and air pollution. The Valley has some of the worst air pollution in the country. HSR will help reduce those emissions. How Greenlining Institute can say that’s not a priority is shocking.

I am all for transit operating funding. But that’s why Governor Brown is planning to use only 19% of the cap-and-trade funds for HSR. That leaves over $1 billion for other priorities, including transit funding. It is austerity logic to say we have to pick and choose between these priorities. Greenlining Institute should be leading the call for a hike in the statewide gas tax to fund transit operations. Instead they are calling for a de facto alliance with the Tea Party to kill HSR.

I don’t know if these groups even care about HSR. Their statements suggests they are happy to watch it die. Because that’s what may well happen if Brown’s proposal for using cap-and-trade funds for HSR is stopped. The state needs to show a Sacramento judge in the next few months that they have revenues sufficient to make a new financing plan work. There’s no time to come up with some other source of money in order to survive the lawsuit, and notably, neither Sierra Club California nor Greenlining Institute are proposing one.

These groups must keep in mind CARB’s point about the long term. We will never achieve the kind of reductions we need to avoid catastrophe just by small measures. I am a huge transit supporter and love electric cars. But those alone will not solve the climate crisis. We need to re-engineer how California operates. We need to eliminate all burning of fossil fuels as soon as possible, and should start with those alternatives that carry a lot of people. HSR is a godsend when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, using renewable electric power to move people quickly between cities, getting them out of airplanes and cars. We should have built HSR thirty years ago. We’re building it now, and if climate change is as pressing as Phillips says it is, we have no time to lose in getting it funded and under construction.

The main reason I care about HSR, the reason I started this blog, was because I saw it as a crucial tool in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions. I am amazed and appalled that some California environmentalists are willing to oppose the funding of long-term CO2 emission reducers like HSR because they cannot understand the politics and cannot envision anything other than austerity.

Members of Sierra Club chapters in California need to rise up against this flawed, damaging, short-term thinking. Let the Sacramento office know how you feel. Tell them that it’s not acceptable to help the right destroy HSR and that funding long-term reduction of CO2 emissions must be a priority.

Gus Ayer, RIP

Gus Ayer photo gus_zpsd39dba29.jpgNote by Brian: I really want to emphasize what a special person and activist Gus Ayer was. He will be missed not only in Orange County, but by everybody who happened to meet him. He was completely dedicated to the many good causes he committed himself to, and gave tremendously of himself. More can be said, and Robert did an excellent job, but let there be no doubt that California was made better by Gus. We all lost something with his passing. Rest in peace, Gus.

Gus Ayer, former mayor of Fountain Valley and a leader of progressive political organizing in Orange County, has died.

Gus was a well-known figure to many of us who were active in California politics and an important part of the Calitics family. For me, he was a mentor as I made the transition from a full-time academic to a full-time political activist in the late ’00s. I thought I knew what I was doing, but Gus often took time to show me the ways things really worked and gave me suggestions on how to actually be effective, how elections are really fought and won, and how power can and should be wielded for the right purposes and values.

We bonded over our shared connections to Orange County, collaborated on various projects, and kept in touch at Democratic Party meetings. We talked about innovative ways to engage voters and win elections in the purple frontiers of the state, including Orange County. We traipsed around Tustin, my hometown, and schemed how we could reclaim it from the cronies whose misrule was well known. It’s only now that I look back and realize how much I learned from him.

Gus didn’t just want to turn Orange County blue, he wanted to turn it a deep, progressive shade of blue. He believed, as did many of us, that Orange County could elect progressive leaders, that we didn’t have to settle for corporate hacks or moderates. One of the candidates he helped support and elect is Huntington Beach City Councilmember Joe Shaw, who shared his reminiscences on Daily Kos:

He sacrificed his own re-election campaign in Fountain Valley to try and elect Debbie Cook to Congress. He was the mayor and a city council member in Fountain Valley.

I could always count on Gus to make me laugh and to cut through the bullshit and tell it to me straight. He was my mentor and in my innermost circle of friends.

I walked many many miles with Gus at Mile Square Park near his home in Fountain Valley. We strategized laughed and made many plans during those walks.

There is a great void in my heart right now.

Joe also tallied Gus’s recent victories:

Just to let you know what Gus worked on in the 2012 campaign cycle:

Sandy Genis elected to the Costa Mesa City Council

Jill Hardy elected to the Huntington Beach City Council

Diana Carey elected to the Westminster City Council

Helped to defeat Measure Z in Huntington Beach

Worked on the anti-Charter initiative in Costa Mesa

Worked on saving Coyote Hills in Fullerton and won at the ballot even though outspent 10-1.

Worked on defeating an anti-open space initiative in Orange and won!

Another activist who Gus helped, Heather Pritchard, also shared her thoughts at Daily Kos:

And he loved big.  He had an amazing family, he was so proud of his sons, his adopted and biological.  And he just had a way of making you feel welcome.  I always knew if I need someone to talk to I could call Gus….

You were one in a million Gus and I know so many others who will miss you just as much as I will.  You were like a Father I didn’t have, I’m sure you were to so many.  I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact I won’t see you again.

Gus was also a strong environmentalist. Just before his death, he began working on a project to fight a deeply flawed desalination proposal in Orange County. He was proud of a new website he had launched, No Deal With Poseidon.

There are many ways to honor his memory, and we’ll have something concrete in the near future. But for now, perhaps the best way to honor this key figure in California progressive politics is to visit No Deal With Poseidon, share the link with those you know in Orange County, and help spread the word about this fight which, like so many others, we will carry on in his name and in his memory.

Photo credit: Gus in his element.Marta Evry

Back in Black

The structural revenue shortfall ends because Republicans have been thrown out of government

This week’s big news is the announcement from Governor Jerry Brown that the state budget is out of perennial deficit and looking at several years of surpluses. Over the weekend we’ll talk more about what those surpluses mean and how they ought to be used. But today it’s worth taking a moment to remember how we got here.

Since 2001 or so, California’s budget seems to have been in perpetual deficit, with less money coming in than was needed to fund existing public services. While the deficit pressure eased in 2005-06, that didn’t last, and by the summer of 2007 the deficits had returned as the housing bubble popped and the country slid into the worst recession in 60 years.

Republicans and many of their media enablers claimed this was due to Democrats “overspending” and that the only solution was massive austerity. Thanks to the rule requiring a 2/3 vote of the legislature to pass a budget, Republicans were able to force Democrats and the state to accept this argument, and from 2007 onward state budgets included brutal cuts to health care, education, transportation, local governments, the courts, and other things that are necessary to keep California functioning as a 21st century society.

But those right-wing claims were never true. In fact, they were little more than deflections from the truth – that the deficits were caused by Republicans themselves and their anti-tax ideologies.

The story began in 1978 with the passage of Prop 13, but this particular chapter’s true beginning came in 1996. During the 1980s state government had cobbled together an unwieldy but workable fix to the devastation to revenues and public services that Prop 13 had wrought, aided by that decade’s economic boom. The ’80s economic expansion was unsustainable, rooted in weapons, finance, and housing. By 1991 it had all come apart. Once again, the state government cobbled together solutions, as moderate Republicans and Governor Pete Wilson joined Democrats to pass a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases. By the middle of the 1990s the state budget had stabilized, and surpluses were projected for the first time in years.

But California was also undergoing historic political change. In 1992 the state flipped from red to blue in the presidential election for the first time in many decades. Republicans in 1994 won a tenuous majority in the Assembly by stoking white resentment at the rising Latino population, but this was only a temporary win. They needed something else that could stem the rising Democratic tide.

Republicans figured the answer was to fan the flames of the tax revolt. The first step came in 1996 when Proposition 218 was placed on the November ballot. This measure required a 2/3 vote of the people to raise most local taxes, setting up widespread municipal financial woes in the coming years.

But their main thrust came in 1998. As the dot-com boom gathered pace, the state had huge budget surpluses. Rather than use the surplus to fund new programs or new capital investments, Republicans, worried about their fortunes in the 1998 statewide races, decided it was time for a huge tax cut. Democrats, eager to appease the tax revolt, went along.

The result was the creation of a structural revenue shortfall. Rather than a one-time tax rebate, tax rates were permanently lowered. The consequences became clear in 2001 when the country entered recession. As tax revenues declined, it became clear that the 1998 cuts had gone way too far, and Governor Gray Davis found himself short nearly $30 billion in revenue.

Republicans had engineered a crisis. Now they took advantage of it to reclaim power, pushing through the recall of Governor Davis in 2003 and replacing him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. There were many issues driving the 2003 recall, but in many ways this was the final triumph of the tax revolt. Schwarzenegger ran against the restoration of the vehicle license fee to the levels it had been at from the 1940s to 1998, and blamed the state’s budget woes on overspending.

Once in office, he refused to consider new tax increases even though economists suggested he do so, and instead borrowed money to cover the shortfall. He also pushed through, with Democratic support, a new cut of the VLF, creating a $6 billion hole in the state budget that was only filled last November by the passage of Prop 30.

The underlying structural revenue shortfall never went away. When the housing bubble burst and the nation slid into recession in 2007 (California got there a few months earlier) the revenue shortfall problem was again revealed. And again, Republicans demanded and won not just more spending cuts, but also more tax cuts. Even as billions were being cut from schools, Republicans leveraged the 2/3 rule for passing budgets to win new corporate tax loopholes. California became a laughingstock, a national poster child for supposed liberal fiscal excess.

By 2009 Democrats finally agreed with what we progressives had been saying for years: that the only way to fix the state’s financial woes was not to cut spending, but to take power away from Republicans. On New Year’s Day 2013 I described how this was done. In 2010 Prop 25 passed, ending the 2/3 rule and eliminating Republican power over state budgets (though not yet over tax increases). That same year, Democrats swept all statewide offices, including retaking the governor’s mansion. In 2012, Democrats went further, winning a 2/3 supermajority while also ending the structural revenue shortfall with Prop 30. They even managed to close the corporate tax loopholes created in 2008, with Prop 39 passing by a healthy margin.

Yesterday we saw that elections have consequences, as Governor Brown announced the end of deficits and the return of surplus. It is not a coincidence that this happened after Republicans were kicked out of state government and after the tax revolt was ended. California’s fiscal woes were a direct result of Republican policies, and now that the Republicans are gone, so too are the structural deficits.

That’s not to say all is rosy. California still has widespread unemployment. The safety net and public schools have been shredded by 30 years of low taxes, and in particular by the Republican-driven austerity of the late ’00s. California has a lot of spending needs in the coming decades in order to build a sustainable society and to address global warming, as well as to finally overcome a century and a half of inequality.

But it is possible to begin solving those problems now that the Republican Party has been destroyed and the state budget crisis has ended. California has a future again – if the supermajority decides to start building one.

What California Can Teach America About Stopping Extremist Obstruction

If you read Calitics at any time between 2007 and 2010, you’d have seen a site focused on the same problem now facing the country as a whole: how to keep a government, an economy, and a society functioning in the face of Republican obstruction. The latest nonsense surrounding the so-called “fiscal cliff” shows that the House Republicans have learned well from their Sacramento counterparts. The method is the same: make Democrats do what they otherwise would not do by threatening to block passage of crucial legislation, then up the ante by rejecting initial deals and demanding even more once Democrats have shown they will make concessions to avoid the predicted disaster that comes with legislative inaction. The resulting deals were destructive to the state’s economy and safety net, worsening the already bad financial and social crisis.

For a long time, Sacramento Democrats argued they had no other choice. We heard from Speakers of the Assembly and Presidents of the Senate that unless concessions were made to obtain Republican votes, budgets would not be passed and people would suffer. Republicans made good on their threats and delayed budgets – the 2008-09 budget was three months late.  Now we’re watching a similar script play out in Congress.

Here in 2013, California is in a very different place – precisely because of the lessons learned from the era of Republican obstruction. Voters approved a tax increase to help schools. The state budget is headed toward surplus. Budgets are passed on time and without hostage tactics. State government is starting to become functional again.

That did not happen by accident. It happened because Democrats and progressives decided they had enough of Republican obstructionism and developed a plan to stop it for good. The plan included smarter legislative tactics, but the real keys were changes to the political process as well as an unprecedented organizing effort, all aimed at the same core goal: restoring political power to the people, not allowing it to remain concentrated in an extremist fringe.

The first step requires being honest about how politics now works. Another veteran of those California political wars, David Atkins, observed that expecting Republicans to act rationally is to misunderstand how the party operates:

The Republican electoral chips are stashed safely in gerrymandered hands, and any losses over fiscal cliffs or debt ceilings only hurt the President and the nation’s perception of government. There’s no downside for the GOP in bluffing every time in the hopes that the President will fold. Why not? When you’re playing with house money, it makes sense to go all in on every hand.

This realization led California Democrats and progressives away from focusing on the specifics of a deal and toward the kind of process and political changes that would end the obstructionism for good. Once it was realized the problems were deeper, people started working on the lasting solutions.

In 2009, after yet another bad budget deal, progressive organizations began meeting to plan the way out. Everyone agreed that the rule requiring a 2/3 vote of the legislature to pass a budget was a key part of the problem, as it gave Republicans leverage. Getting rid of that rule became a top priority for the 2010 ballot – with majority rule, Democrats would never again have to make deals with Republicans to pass a budget.

But it was also agreed that the electorate had to be expanded. Nobody knew what kind of electorate would show up in 2010, and Meg Whitman was already making it clear she would spent as much as it took to try and win the governor’s race. Public confidence in the Legislature was at an all-time low, creating conditions that Republicans could potentially have exploited to win more seats, particularly if the 2010 electorate was more conservative than the historic 2008 electorate.

So work began on mobilizing hundreds of thousands of new and infrequent voters among the progressive base. Many of these voters were people of color, and many were low income. Their values were progressive, but since Democrats and progressive organizations had generally failed to reach out to them, they were not a regular part of the electorate. The Democratic Party under its new chair John Burton and its new executive director Shawnda Westly pursued this on one track while the progressive coalition led by labor unions pursued the same goal on their own track – to be clear, this wasn’t coordinated, and no laws were violated in the process.

Progressive organizations, websites like Calitics, and an increasing number of Democratic elected officials also began adopting similar messaging. They pointed out that Republicans did not share California’s values, that they were willing to destroy the state to impose their extremist values on a population that did not want them, and that the only answer was to take away their power to do that. It was made clear to people that problem wasn’t bad legislators unwilling to “come together” but that a group of extremists had used loopholes to block good things from happening and to cause people harm.

The result was that in 2010 California bucked the red tide that hit nationally. Democrats won huge victories, sweeping all statewide offices and taking back the governor’s office by a 13-point margin. Prop 25 passed by an even larger margin, ending the annual Republican hostage tactics on the budget. This was the result of the voter mobilization efforts that had begun in 2009.

The coalition for change did not stop there. In 2012 the progressive groups continued their voter mobilization work, this time to beat back the anti-union Prop 32 and to pass the Prop 30 tax increase. That mobilization in turn helped elect a Democratic supermajority, leaving Republicans with no more political power of any kind in state government.

They were helped in their work by a late but pivotal voter registration innovation. In September 2012 the Secretary of State’s office announced online voter registration was available. Over 1 million people registered online, and many of them were the younger and diverse voters that are key to a progressive future.

The supermajority victory was also enabled by a change that the Democratic and progressive groups had originally opposed. Redistricting reform passed at the 2008 election in the form of Prop 11, and was upheld by voters in 2010 when a repeal effort reached the ballot. I was one of many progressives who opposed this reform. But the work of the Citizens Redistricting Commission proved me wrong. It ended a 20-year Republican-friendly gerrymander, creating fair districts that reflected modern demographic realities. Republicans now had to defend turf that had previously been artificially safe, and as a result they lost four Congressional seats to Democrats, along with the Democratic supermajority in Sacramento.

In short, the steps to stopping Republican obstruction in California involved changing the rules and changing the electorate:

• Ending a supermajority procedural rule (Prop 25)

• Growing the electorate through massive organizing

• Making it easier to vote (online voter registration, easy access to vote-by-mail)

• Ending gerrymandering (Prop 11 redistricting commission)

• Naming the problem (calling out Republican obstruction)

To stop the extremists in the House GOP from destroying what remains of America’s safety net and obtaining their dream of drowning government in a bathtub, a similar path must be followed nationally. David Atkins, now chair of the Ventura County Democratic Party, laid out the rules that need to be changed to stop extremist obstruction. Notice the similarities to the list that worked in California:

The only thing that allows Republicans to take their hostages in the first place is a series of arcane rules that give the minority undue influence. Among those rules are:

• Gerrymandered Congressional districts

• Dysfunctional filibuster rules

• Disproportionate Senate representation

• Corrupt lobbying laws

• Campaign finance laws that give outsized political influence to a few billionaires

• Archaic electoral college rules

• Discriminatory workday elections

California’s problems are not solved, not by a longshot. There’s still a lot of work to do to repair the damage from 35 years of a right-wing tax revolt and the inequality it helped create. But the opportunity to fix those problems now exists. The nation as a whole will not be able to overcome extremist obstructionism and have a chance to solve deeper problems until these types of changes are pursued.

Progressives should continue to pay close attention to the details of any deal in Congress, and continue to organize around them. But it’s time to pursue the bigger changes that are needed to put an end to the obstruction, to fix the broken parts of the American system of government that the extremists have been exploiting.

The Democratic Supermajority: Use It Or Lose It

Democratic control of the California State Legislature is nothing new. Since 1970 Democrats have dominated the Capitol, with Republicans having only a narrow majority in the Assembly for a short 2-year period in the 1990s and never having control of the Senate in that time. But since 1978, Democratic majorities have been essentially meaningless. Proposition 13 required a 2/3 vote of the Legislature to raise taxes, a conservative attempt to seize power they had failed to win at the ballot box. In November 2012, Democrats finally won the 2/3 majority in the Legislature that had been so close in recent years.

The question on everyone’s mind is now “what will Democrats do with their new power?” To hear California’s punditocracy tell it, Democrats shouldn’t do much of anything. These pundits, who have been slow to grasp the massive changes in California politics that have unfolded over the last few years, argue that Democrats should be ultra-cautious and resist attempts to make big changes. Larry Gerston provides a classic example of the genre:

Still two facts are clear. First, the Democrats need to be careful not to go so far that they upset those who put them in this exalted position. And second, the Democrats should not take fellow Democrat Jerry Brown for granted as an automatic ally, given Brown’s penchant to not raise any taxes without voter approval.

Gerston, like the other pundits, completely misreads the situation. The only way Democrats can upset those who put them in this exalted position is to be hesitant and timid. As recent history shows, Democratic supermajorities always evaporate when they aren’t used to solve deeper problems.

California Democrats have a supermajority because the new electorate has killed off the Republican Party, just as I said it would two years ago, and put Democrats in power to renew the California Dream by using government to rebuild social democracy and the prosperity it creates. Democrats didn’t win because moderates swung their way, they won the same way President Obama won – by cranking out the progressive electorate to overwhelm the remnants of conservative California.

Here’s the key: For Democrats to hold these new seats, they have to keep that base happy and engaged in politics. If they disappoint that base, if they fail to solve the problems of that base, those voters won’t turn out in big numbers in 2014 and Democrats will guarantee they will lose the supermajority they finally won.

See below for more…

These pundits, almost all of them white men like me, do not understand this new situation. They’re locked into the old mentality of politics, which held that majorities were won by getting enough moderate white support. Those days are over. Here in 21st century California, you win and keep power by engaging, empowering, and improving the lives of a diverse, progressive majority.

History proves this theory. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won two big national elections, seizing first the Congress and then the White House. Obama’s 2008 victory brought with it a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, finally reaching the crucial 60 vote threshold that had long eluded Democrats.

But instead of using this majority to solve the pressing problems facing the country, Democrats took a too-cautious approach. They passed a convoluted health care reform bill that few understood and that didn’t excite the base. The February 2009 stimulus was good, if too small, but it wasn’t followed up with any systematic job creation efforts. Immigration reform went nowhere. Labor unions and environmentalists sat and watched as their key legislative goals were abandoned. LGBT rights sat on the back burner until activists forced it to the top of the agenda on the eve of the 2010 elections.

The result was that in 2010, the electorate that won the 2006 and 2008 elections for the Democrats stayed home – and Democrats lost the House of Representatives as a result. In 2012, that electorate returned, and Republicans were dealt a smashing defeat.

A similar phenomenon recently took place in a West Coast legislature. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won 2/3 majorities in Washington State. Just as in Congress, however, Democrats failed to use that majority to solve major problems. Democratic leaders in Olympia chose the path of caution, worried that they would lose the swing seats if they moved too boldly to address the state’s revenue crisis, create jobs, or improve schools. But because of that caution, Washington State Democrats failed to reward their electorate, and lost that supermajority in 2010 anyway.

Political reality, then, makes it absolutely clear that Democrats need to deliver meaningful improvements to people’s daily lives if they are going to keep their supermajority. However, that doesn’t mean they should just pass whatever they want. Legislators should assume any tax increase or substantial policy action will be put on the ballot for a referendum by wealthy conservatives. Democratic leaders will need to work hand-in-hand with California’s progressive movement to determine and then implement a reform agenda over the next two years. Only by a coordinated effort will that reform agenda withstand the certain counterrevolution from the rich that would come at the November 2014 ballot.

What should that agenda look like? Here are just a few ideas:

• Make it even easier to vote. Online voter registration was a big key to the Democratic victories this fall, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to make it easier for people to express their democratic rights. Same day registration is a good place to start.

• Bring even more revenue to the schools. Even with the passage of Prop 30, there’s still a lot of work to do to fix education. As Scott Lay of the Community College League pointed out on Twitter late last week, Prop 30 brings in $200 million for community colleges – but they’ve faced $800 million in cuts since 2008. Prop 30 will help California’s public schools, but they’ve been underfunded since 1978 and the new revenue won’t fully fix that problem. What’s the answer – an oil severance tax? More closed loopholes, something voters showed they’d support by passing Prop 39? More taxes on the rich? Whatever the means, California’s schools still need help.

• Make sure every Californian gets good health care. There’s no excuse now for not passing single-payer, nor is there any excuse for even something as simple as rate regulation for the current private insurers. Health care in California took a lot of cuts since 2007, and the federal health care bill won’t fully reverse those problems. Vermont is moving toward a single-payer system. California should join them.

• Do something to create jobs. Recovery is still slow in California, it’s uneven, and wages aren’t rising as fast as they should. A comprehensive job creation strategy, likely involving direct government hiring, should be high on the agenda. Matching this with clean energy would be a good start. Infrastructure repair makes sense too. And while they’re at it, a solution to the ongoing foreclosure crisis would be especially wise from both an economic and a political perspective.

• Fix the Constitution. California’s constitution has serious problems that get in the way of effective government. The Democratic supermajority can’t amend the constitution itself, but it can propose new amendments without having to raise a dime for signature gathering to do so. Well-funded neoliberal groups like California Backward, whose Prop 31 got clobbered, and Nicholas Berggruen’s Think Long group, are likely to come up with their own fixes. Democrats should preempt them with sensible changes.

What might those look like? Fixing Prop 13 would be a good start – a split roll, perhaps? Eliminating the 2/3 rule for local tax revenue is probably a more likely win than eliminating the 2/3 rule for the legislature, and with transportation measures in LA and Alameda counties “failing” even with 64% support, the need for a fix is clear. Dems could even be bold and abolish the useless State Senate and tripling the size of the Assembly. And a fix to the initiative process, whatever that might be, would be especially appropriate after the Munger insanity this year.

That’s a brief list, and I’m sure there’s a lot more that can and should be listed. But the point here is that unless California’s Democratic supermajority uses its power to fix some of the state’s deeper problems, they absolutely will lose that supermajority in 2014.

The Tax Revolt Is Over

Yesterday’s vote to pass Prop 30 – by a larger margin than most observers expected – does more than just provide $6 billion of badly needed funding to the state’s public schools. It brings to a close a 34-year long tax revolt that came very close to destroying California’s middle class, locking its low income families into permanent poverty, and left the state on the edge of financial ruin. And while there is still a lot of work ahead to overturn the legal and constitutional legacies of the tax revolt, it no longer has political power. That in turn means the California Republican Party, and the California conservative movement, are as dead as Monty Python’s parrot.

Yes on 30!

The tax revolt began in 1978 when conservatives mobilized suburban white voters against the public services that had created broadly shared prosperity in the postwar years. Extremist ideologues like Howard Jarvis wanted to destroy the California Dream that Pat Brown and others helped create. They played on the beliefs of many suburban whites that it wasn’t legitimate to allow people of color to share in the California Dream. The use of property taxes to fund things like schools in poorer communities and anti-poverty programs offended many whites in the late 1970s. Republicans were already riding that backlash to political power. California Republicans added the innovation of throwing anger at rising taxes, a particularly serious problem in the inflationary 1970s, into the mix.

By scaring white suburban voters into believing that their version of the California Dream was threatened by rising taxes to pay for programs benefiting people of color, conservatives and Republicans succeeded in creating a tax revolt they used to push their ideological fantasies of destroying the middle class and prosperity by defunding the government that created it.

Prop 13 was the moment this toxic force arrived on the political scene. Democrats were spooked and spent the next 30 years running away from tax increases. With rare exceptions, Democrats tried to take a “me too” approach to dealing with the tax revolt. Rather than trying to reverse it or take power away from it, they generally tried to pass themselves off as a kindler, gentler version of Howard Jarvis. There were important exceptions, particularly John Garamendi’s bold move in 1990 to destroy the Gann limit (a hard spending cap) in an initiative that also raised gas taxes.

But those exceptions were outnumbered by incredibly bad decisions by Democrats to go along with big tax cuts for short-term gains. Gray Davis likely would have won the 1998 gubernatorial election anyway, but Democrats went along with the huge tax cut that outgoing Governor Pete Wilson proposed that year in the belief that they had to do so to win the election.

Those tax cuts began California’s financial woes. In 2002, faced with huge budget deficits, Democrats did raise the vehicle license fee. The tax revolt was revived one last time, however, when Arnold Schwarzenegger used that as part of his successful recall and replacement of Davis as governor. Democrats again went along with a reckless tax cut, agreeing to slash $6 billion in revenue by cutting the VLF and not replacing it with anything new. That act in 2003 created the structural revenue shortfall that has finally been closed by the passage of Prop 30.

This victory over the tax revolt happened because of years of progressive organizing against further tax cuts and for tax increases. Progressive voices and organizations completely rejected the post-1978 Democratic logic that the tax revolt had to be appeased. Instead, we insisted that the tax revolt had to be confronted and defeated. With Prop 30 that’s exactly what happened.

Progressive organizing against the tax revolt, especially in the late ’00s as the budget crisis returned, helped unite the California Democratic Party in support of tax progressivism. Democratic unity was so strong that Jerry Brown, the original architect of the appeasement strategy in the wake of Prop 13’s passage, saw he had no other path forward to govern the state but to align himself with the progressive movement to solve the state’s revenue woes. The Courage Campaign and the California Federation of Teachers in particular played a big role in pushing Governor Brown to the left, and a broad alliance of community organizing groups did the ground work to get voters registered and make the GOTV calls to get Prop 30 approved.

Had Governor Brown allied with progressive forces in 1977 during the fateful legislative debate over property tax reform, all of this could have been avoided. Instead Brown allied with corporations and moderates, failed to get a reform package approved, and set the stage for Prop 13’s passage the next year.

Still, the biggest change that was required was demographic. Many of those angry white suburbanites convinced that people of color and their liberal allies were going to destroy their suburban paradise have left California, either by relocation or by the intervention of the Grim Reaper. In their place has grown up a native-born population that is diverse, that isn’t ideologically wedded to car-centric postwar suburbs, and that rejected the “I’ve got mine, screw you” mentality of Howard Jarvis and his millions of voters.

And that brings us to the real losers here. With Prop 30’s passage and the apparent securing of a 2/3 supermajority in both legislative houses by Democrats, the California Republican Party is a dead party. It no longer has any political relevance in this state. It is a fringe party, dedicated to preserving a vision of California that is now firmly in the past. California Republicans began walking the road to oblivion in 1994 with their embrace of rabid anti-Latino sentiment among suburban whites. As California became younger and more diverse, that sentiment was a political killer, leading to a sweep of all statewide offices by Democrats in 2010.

The only thing the California Republicans had left was anti-tax sentiment. They hoped that they could survive by becoming the voice of the tax revolt, and that they could revive their fortunes by rallying voters against Democratic tax increases. Prop 30 shows that strategy is a failure too. Voters are tired of watching their tuition soar and their schools suffer.

The California Republican Party is an anti-Latino, anti-tax party in a state that has no use any more for either position. The conservative movement in California, every bit as ideologically insane as their national counterparts, has now lost their last thin reed of hope. After a strong 50 year run, starting in the living rooms of Orange County Birchers and the executive offices of corporations who hated paying taxes, the conservative movement in California came within a hair’s breadth of destroying the middle class and the government that created it.

There’s a lot of rebuilding left to do, a lot of legal and constitutional changes that will have to be made to eradicate the remnants of the tax revolt. But that work can now begin. And California’s future glows that much more brightly.

Republicans Use 2/3 Rule to Favor Big Corporations Over Middle Class Students

Fifteen years ago this week, I began my first semester of classes as a UC Berkeley undergraduate. At the time, student fees were about $2200 a semester, or $4400 a year. Here in 2012 that would not even cover a single academic term at a UC school. My four years of UC education cost just under $18,000. A four year education would cost nearly four times that today.

As a product of Southern California’s lower middle class, I’m not sure I could have afforded to attend UC Berkeley if I had to start today. I could take out loans that would total nearly $60,000, which would leave me struggling even if I were to graduate in 2016 and find a good job right out of college.

The difference between 1997 and 2012 is that over those 15 years, state funding for higher education has been gutted, largely to pay for tax breaks. Speaker John A. Pérez’s Middle Class Scholarship proposal would help reverse the trend, closing tax loopholes for big corporations and use the money to help make college more affordable.

As the 2011-12 legislative session wound to a close last night, hopes were high that AB 1500, would find the Republican votes it needed in the State Senate to pass and head to the governor’s desk. In a development that will probably surprise nobody, Republicans and some corporate Democrats refused to support the plan. Despite a majority of Senators backing it, a 2/3 vote is needed to raise a tax, even if it’s just closing a loophole, and so the plan was shelved, although Governor Jerry Brown and legislative leaders have vowed to revive the plan next year.

The stalling out of the Middle Class Scholarship is a classic example of how the 2/3 rule actually works in practice – it protects the rich at the expense of everyone else. While California Republicans believe that a rabid anti-tax ideology helps make them electable, the reality is that most middle class families see the rising cost of college as a direct threat to their financial security and their family’s future. The four-fold increase of the cost of going to UC over the last 15 years is a massive tax increase on working families. Republicans have vowed to protect that tax increase so that wealthy corporations could get a tax break.

Democrats need to hang this around Republican necks over the next two months leading up to the November elections, especially in the swing seats. I’m sure that Ventura County Democrats, for example, will waste no time in letting people know that Tony Strickland and his party want to make it unaffordable for local kids to go to college so that big businesses can get a tax break.

Ultimately, this is another example of the need to get rid of the 2/3 rule for tax increases, which protects the rich while destroying what remains of California’s middle class.

The Case for Progressive CEQA Reform

A broken environmental review system means change is coming – progressives should articulate their vision before one is imposed on them

As Brian explained yesterday a last-minute end of session gut and amend effort to change the California Environmental Quality Act will not move forward. But that doesn’t mean the effort to reform CEQA has come to an end, nor does it mean that the broken system of environmental review can be left to continue to rot. The same coalition that came together this month to push reforms will merely redouble their efforts ahead of a 2013 push to change CEQA. They’ve got the money and the momentum. I would not bet against them.

Many progressive groups across the state mobilized to block this specific reform proposal, charging that it would in fact carve out a series of loopholes to existing laws and help environmentally unfriendly things like offshore oil rigs avoid CEQA review.

These charges are very serious, and if true would indeed mean this proposal wasn’t the right way to reform CEQA. Surely it is the case, as the LA Times argued, that reforms of this importance should be carefully deliberated and not rushed. I agree with that assessment, and shoehorning this into the very end of a legislative session was not a confidence-building move.

But reform is still needed, and progressives would do well to get out in front by proposing a better way to not only review projects, but to ensure that state and regional planning is done in a way that meets 21st century needs of environmental protection and reducing carbon emissions. Unless progressives actively propose an alternative, however, I fear they will get steamrolled. In this post I explore some reasons for reform and what a progressive solution could look like.

The case for reform remains strong. CEQA reform is going to happen. Its backers have the money, and they have the momentum. They can point to any number of truly egregious examples of wanton CEQA abuse to make their case for them. One is the man who stalled the San Francisco Bike Master Plan for four years with a CEQA suit, on the charge that giving bikes more space on the roads would hurt the environment by causing traffic.

High speed rail advocates have seen CEQA used to delay the environmentally and climate friendly project, with well-heeled Peninsula NIMBYs filing lawsuits under CEQA they keep losing, aside from technical fixes that the project was easily able to make. CEQA has even been used to try and overturn a marijuana dispensary ban (and while I oppose such bans, I also don’t see this as a legitimate use of that law). It’s ridiculous things like that which make a mockery of the law and are simply not affordable in an era of climate crisis.

On the other hand, environmentalists have also pointed to a number of examples that showed how CEQA legitimately stopped environmentally damaging projects that other laws would have allowed. One friend described to me yesterday a pollution-spewing project that was permitted under loopholes in existing laws, only to be stopped by a CEQA suit.

My response was that showed the need for reforming not just CEQA, but California’s whole approach to environmental regulation. A new system is needed, because this one is broken. It doesn’t make sense that one should have to go to court to stop an oil refinery but that someone can use environmental law to stop an electrified passenger train that massively reduces carbon emissions. Something isn’t right here.

Others have reached similar conclusions. In 2006, SPUR issued a report titled Fixing the California Environmental Quality Act. They argued that CEQA has failed to meet its objectives, has actually made environmental problems worse, and that it should be replaced in urban and suburban settings with a statewide planning process:

In the absence of strong statewide planning and in the presence of weak local planning, stopping projects is what California does best. CEQA has become the tool of choice for stopping bad ones and good ones. SPUR has reviewed CEQA from the standpoint of sound planning and environmental quality. We contend that after the law’s 30-plus years of operation, the type and pattern of developments, viewed at citywide, regional, and state scales, are environmentally worse than before. Not all of this can be blamed on CEQA; it has improved individual project design in some cases. Yet viewed broadly, CEQA has contributed to sprawl and worsened the housing shortage by inhibiting dense infill development far more than local planning and zoning would have done alone. To re-form California, we must first reform CEQA….

Our neighbors to the north provide a dramatic model for change. At almost the same moment that California turned to environmental impact reports to protect its environment, Oregon turned to a strengthened planning program, requiring effective local plans and zoning by all jurisdictions. Oregon has protected and greatly improved its natural environment without review of individual projects, but with sound intergovernmental planning. The recent property-rights crusade that passed compensatory zoning at the Oregon ballot box does not lessen the fact that the Oregon environment remains one of the most pristine in the country.

California ought to be moving toward a system where we have statewide land use plans that have regional and even city specificity, emphasizing environmentally friendly projects and mandating carbon emissions reductions. That’s the goal of SB 375, and the basis of a lawsuit by Attorney General Kamala Harris against the San Diego Association of Governments plan which did not meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets and instead favored sprawl. Governor Jerry Brown is very interested in these kinds of modernized plans and that’s good. Harmonizing CEQA with those kinds of state and local plans is smart – as long as those plans are modernized and up to date.

More fundamentally, the current CEQA process is not one that encourages thoughtful design or encourages democratic participation. CEQA relies on lawsuits as its primary enforcement mechanism. But many people in communities affected by the worst environmental impacts don’t have the money to go to court. The existing planning process is often described as “decide-announce-defend” where a government agency or private developer decides to do something, announces it, and then holds public meetings to defend it. A more inclusive process, one that would address environmental and social justice concerns, would still have the courts as a pathway but could rely on more democratic processes of engagement to develop regional general plans that meet statewide carbon reduction requirements and environmental rules. Of course, the details of how that might work matter a lot.

Further, CEQA is inherently biased in favor of the status quo. An existing oil refinery or a freeway doesn’t have to face the CEQA process, but a new wind farm or an electric passenger rail system does, making it harder and more costly to replace the polluting infrastructure with clean infrastructure. There’s got to be a better way – CEQA should help address climate change and clean up the skies, the waters, and the neighborhoods, not make it harder to do that.

Good reforms won’t create new loopholes or allow polluters to escape their responsibilities. Good reforms would preserve the key pieces of CEQA, including court enforcement, while also bringing it in line with laws like AB 32 and SB 375. It would favor green, carbon reducing projects while still holding them to environmental standards. It would not be something that people could abuse for purposes that aren’t related to protecting the environment or reducing carbon emissions.

As I’ve argued before, it won’t work to try and maintain the current status quo. CEQA does need reform and that the status quo isn’t acceptable. I wouldn’t want to see CA progressives wind up in a place of defending the current process from any kind of change.

Without reform, the legislature will keep finding ways to give projects whose backers are politically connected CEQA exemptions or expedited reviews. Farmers Field in LA got a bill passed to expedite their CEQA review thanks in part to those connections. I’m not convinced that’s the best way to reform CEQA, but we will see more of it in the absence of lasting fixes.

We need to close the loopholes but also modernize the law and harmonize it with our climate efforts, rather than letting it undermine those efforts. While this specific plan may be dead, others are out there. Eventually one of them will pass. The other side has a lot more money and they have a solution to a system that is broken. I would not bet against them. It is time for a progressive solution. There’s at least four months in which one can be crafted. I hope that work is now under way.

Will Senate Democrats do Mitt Romney’s Work For Him?

As the presidential election cycle heats up, Republicans are looking for ways to undermine President Barack Obama. One of their tried and true tactics is to take high profile initiatives of the Obama Administration and poke holes in them, make them look like scandalous wasteful failures rather than bold, innovative, effective projects. Congressional Republicans already hate high speed rail, and Darrell Issa’s investigation into the California HSR project is clearly intended as a bash-the-president exercise.

Given that, why on earth would State Senate Democrats be willing to undermine the HSR project and give Republicans – including Mitt Romney – another opportunity to attack the president? Unfortunately that seems to be exactly what some Senate Dems have in mind:

Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) has been arguing for weeks that it is impractical for the rail authority to think the Senate could hold hearings and approve the $68-billion rail system – the biggest infrastructure project in state history – in a couple of months.

As a result, the Senate’s Democratic leadership is considering whether to delay including money for construction of an initial rail segment in the 2013-14 budget this spring, and instead push the decision into August before the Legislature recesses. The budget deadline is June 15, but appropriations can be made in separate legislation until Aug. 31.

“The timing is still being discussed, but we should have a better idea in the coming days,” said a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. “It is not uncommon to appropriate bond funds in a bill outside of the budget act.”

There are two important things to consider here. First, a delay would be used by Republicans and Mitt Romney as a justification to argue that President Obama, by investing $3.5 billion in federal funds in the California HSR project, is wasting taxpayer dollars on a project that even some California Democrats don’t like. Already Senators like Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal – who wants to become a Congressional Democrat himself! – have provided crucial ammunition to Republicans like Darrell Issa by repeating claims about the project that are false and flawed, including about the ridership projections. Delaying the funding decision until the eve of the Republican convention strikes me as a very bad thing to do, playing right into their hands.

The other thing is that Simitian is, as usual, wrong about what is going on here. Nothing is being rushed. This project has been under development for the last 15 years. The legislature held extensive hearings in 2008 before placing Prop 1A on the ballot. Voters have already approved the system, and four more years of project planning and development have taken place since then, all with extensive public involvement.

The legislature can and should make this decision by June 15. After all, it makes every other budget decision, many of them complicated and significant, in that time frame. It’s routine. It’s also their job.

For those reasons, a delay is both unnecessary and politically unjustifiable. I’ve worked with Darrell Steinberg in the past and I know he is a smart guy. So let me offer some free advice. Don’t listen to Joe Simitian. Simitian is termed out at the end of this year. Why on earth should he be allowed to undermine the project and undermine President Obama’s re-election chances? It doesn’t make sense. Simitian has zero leverage here. Just ignore him, and move ahead with the HSR funding decision as part of the larger budget.

The LA Times also has an interesting item regarding the HSR budget request:

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown has sent to the Legislature a budget order that lays out his funding request for the rail project. The technical document from Brown’s Department of Finance set at least one new condition that nobody expected.

Brown wants to forbid any funding for urban rail transit projects, which are part of the so-called blended approach to the bullet train project that the rail authority has proposed, unless the Legislature also approves money for the Central Valley segment.

Awesome. Governor Jerry Brown is a freaking rock star and the best thing that has happened to high speed rail in years. The Central Valley segment is key to the project and absolutely should be part of the initial construction. Kudos to him for standing up for this project.