Tag Archives: smart growth

CA-10: An Interview With Sen. Mark DeSaulnier

Mark DeSaulnier has had a rapid ascent through the state legislature and now, potentially, into Congress.  Within three years, this former restaurant owner won elections to the State Assembly (in 2006) and the State Senate (in 2008), with a Congressional primary scheduled for September 1.  Prior to that, he was a 3-time member of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and the California Air Resources Board.  A former liberal Republican in the mold of Edward Brooke, DeSaulnier switched parties several years ago and compiled a liberal voting record in the State Legislature.  His first ad of the campaign covered the topic of health care, and I asked him about this and several other issues in an interview conducted last week.  Having taken place before the crucial budget vote, I spent a good deal of time asking DeSaulnier about that, and you can see his responses here.  Depending on your perspective, he either did or did not fulfill the promise to vote against “most” of the budget, by the way, voting no on 11 of 26 bills, including all of the more controversial ones.

I’ll pick up with a paraphrased transcript of the rest of the interview below:

DD: So, other than the budget, how’s it going with your campaign?

Mark DeSaulnier: Well, this is a tough campaign, with a big field and a lot of good candidates.  The polls we’ve done show us winning.  We’ve got 70% of the money that we need to compete, and a lot of great endorsements.  I would say we have the most local endorsements inside the district.  And we’re going to be able to put together a great ground campaign, with people I’ve worked with for 20 years in the district.  I think we’re going to be concentrated in Contra Costa County, where we can post a big number.  I think we’re putting ourselves out there as the local candidate, who has represented the district for a long time.  And we have people out there walking and phoning, putting forward that message.

DD: As long as we’re on California, obviously you’ve seen the dysfunction at the local level.  What do you think you can do at the federal level to remedy this situation?

MD: You know, I read a lot of Paul Krugman, and I agree with him that we’re going to need a second stimulus package.  And I think we need it sooner and not later.  I think we can take what’s been learned from the stimulus package that we’re doing now.  I think the problem is that the banks like Citi and Bank of America aren’t lending, and so we need to require the banks to lend, with relief for the credit worthy who are falling behind on their payments, and more money out to the credit unions who have done a better job handling this crisis.  Next, I think we have to do some sort of fiscal stabilization.  I see it in this state, people who need to access the safety net go up when the economy goes down.  And so we have to break that cycle, and I think we can by providing some relief.  Finally, we should say that we can do things more efficiently.  There shouldn’t be this silo mentality.  I’ll give you an example.  We put together these “one-stops,” places where you can go for unemployment and job training.  And people tell me that you have to get out of one line and pick up a phone in the office to get your unemployment benefits.  That just doesn’t seem like good government to me.  And I think we have an opportunity to make government work better.

DD: Let’s move on to health care.  Seems to be a big issue for you.  What are the principles you carry in this debate?

MD: To me, the gold standard is single payer.  We have the problem of getting health care to those who need it, and also how we get control of costs.  I think the public option is the first step, and if we do it right, it could be, and really I think it should be, single payer.  The question is what are the Democrats willing to give up to get moderates on board, and I think there have to be some lines we cannot cross there.  In the end, it has to be about flexibility and more choice.  That’s the way you’re going to sell this thing.  It’s telling that the moderates want firewalls in their plan, they don’t want the people to have more choice, they want to preserve something for the insurance companies.

DD: Will you commit to not vote for anything that doesn’t have a quality public plan available on day one, not a trigger, open to everyone, and with the kind of rates necessary to force the insurance companies to compete?

MD: Yes.  I think as liberals, as progressives, something we don’t do a lot but which we can learn from Republicans, sometimes we’ve just got to say no.

DD: Congress has started to debate the regulatory reform ideas put forward by the Obama Administration, and they’re getting a ton of pushback from the banking industry, particularly on the concept of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  It’s the same way on a lot of these issues, the banks just won’t relent.  How do we solve this problem?

MD: Honestly, the politics will never get totally fixed without a public finance system in this country.  And then people say, “why should we pay for elections?”  The truth is that the average American is paying disproportionately already, when the giveaways to businesses and corporations are factored in.  They buy elections fairly cheaply, and they get the rewards.  So that’s something we have to pursue.  As far as your question, yes, I think we need a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, in fact I think it should be cabinet-level.  A Secretary of Consumer Protection.  The point to all of this is that if middle income people don’t have wealth, democracy ends.  That’s just the bottom line.  And one way to ensure that is by protecting consumers, so you don’t see all their wealth go into someone else’s pockets.  Inequality is just killing us right now.  Kevin Phillips wrote about this years ago, in Bad Money, and he was very prophetic.  I also think that you can’t reform the financial system without holding people accountable.  And so I would involve the Department of Justice right at the beginning.  That’s the only way to really ensure it doesn’t happen again.

DD: You mention inequality, it’s something Democrats don’t talk about enough.  A recent Wall Street Journal story talked about the top 1% earning 35% of all the compensation in the country.

MD: It’s stunning.  And our tax structure, by the way, rewards the accumulation of wealth, not work.  This happens when you get a financial services economy, which is completely not sustainable.  We don’t have manufacturing, we just have this financial services giant, and it trades in bubbles.  So one way to reduce that inequality is to retool the financial services sector, make it smaller, make it more boring.

DD: OK, last question.  I wanted to ask you about SB375, the smart growth measure that you played a big part in passing last year.  This bill doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it really offers a blueprint to how to achieve smart growth policies with the statewide authority working in concert with local communities.  Do you plan to scale that up if you make it to Congress?

MD: Oh, absolutely, and this is where I think my background really suits me to replace Ellen Tauscher.  I chaired the Transportation Committee in the Assembly as a freshman, I think the first person to do that.  I spent ten years on the California Air Resources Board, and I co-authored SB375.  I’m pretty sure there’s a companion bill in Congress right now.  Doris Matsui (CA-05) is carrying it right now.  I have honed in throughout my career on the changing transportation and mobility side of the energy issue.  We accomplish this, in part by reducing miles, and also finding new energy sources for transportation.  We need more transit, and a move away from single-occupancy vehicles and long commutes.  It’s about bringing the work space closer to the living space, and creating livable communities.  So I think I’m naturally suited  for such a task.  I’d like to get on the Transportation Committee if I get to Congress.

DD: Thanks for your time today.

MD: No problem, thank you.

California’s Most Important Traffic Jam

Perhaps the most important part of Barack Obama’s Southern California trip, in my view, was not hearing the perspectives of a nervous public, or checking out battery technology in Pomona, or using the bully pulpit to speak to the nation on the Tonight Show.  It’s that he got stuck in traffic.

He got caught in traffic on the 110. He bantered with Jay Leno. And he sought to reassure people worried about the sagging economy and the spiraling national debt.

President Obama ended a two-day swing through Southern California on Thursday, a trip that exposed him to both celebrity and everyday struggles. Like many people navigating the freeways at midday, he was briefly tied up in traffic, his motorcade wheezing along at 10 mph as he made his way from west of downtown Los Angeles to Burbank. But he also got to trade quips on “The Tonight Show” with Leno, mixing a sober assessment of the AIG bonus scandal with details about his life inside the White House.

Traffic has actually improved in the LA area over the last six months, at least in peak hours with less workers traveling.  But it remains incredibly difficult to move for large chunks of the daytime, which decreases productivity and causes harmful and unnecessary carbon emissions.  Los Angeles’ transit infrastructure has been abysmal for so long that few remember how it was built, along streetcar lines.  Increased revenue from Measure R can spark a transit revival, with a subway to the sea, a Green Line to LAX, and increased light rail and bus service throughout the region, but that will take years if not decades, especially without federal aid.  

This week, Ray LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation, put a post up at the Department of Transportation’s blog, one of the ugliest-looking blogs I’ve ever seen, what I imagine a blog from 1982 would look like if they had blogs or the public Internet back then… but I digress, because the content is excellent:

Today, I was proud to address my former colleagues in the House of Representatives and co-present a DOT-HUD partnership to help American families gain better access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs.

As I told House members, “One of my highest priorities is to help promote more livable communities through sustainable surface transportation programs.” That means roads, rails, and transit. It means safer passage for pedestrians, for bicyclists.

After housing costs, transportation takes the biggest bite out of the typical household budget. That’s why a partnership between HUD and DOT can be so effective; we have the ability to ease the largest financial burden on many American families. We’re talking about 60% of the average working American family’s expenses. HUD Secretary Donovan and I can cut these costs by focusing our departments’ efforts on creating affordable, sustainable communities.

While so many of the decisions about smart growth and livable communities are typically made at the local, the federal government can absolutely play a role in encouraging better development decisions, either through the bully pulpit or grants in aid.  Housing, transportation and energy are all intimately linked.  A community with residential and commercial spaces close together, which provides durable transit options between home and work, whether through bike lanes or light rail or whatever, allows for reducing carbon emissions through auto transit.  It means a more vibrant neighborhood and a higher quality of life.  Communities that cater just to businesses get abandoned at night.  Bedroom communities are sleepy during the day.  It doesn’t make any sense.  Not to mention that reducing housing and transportation costs in tandem frees up money for economic activity for small businesses that cater to the area.

Clearly, the status quo is unsustainable.  Just ask the guy in the motorcade stuck on the 110 last Thursday.

Without Transit Funding, State’s Smart Growth Efforts Not Enough

(SB 375 is truly important in smart growth, but it cannot operate in a vacuum. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

From today’s Beyond Chron

‘Smart growth’ received a flurry of coverage over the past couple weeks, due largely to an important bill just passed by the state legislature to encourage denser development throughout California. Yet a crucial element of this year’s budget debate remained conspicuously absent from much of this coverage-the proposal to slash public transit funding in 2008-09. Treating transit like an afterthought is nothing new for the state (just last year, for example, the Governor robbed $1.25 billion from public transit coffers). But as a bipartisan consensus begins to gel around addressing climate change through land use decisions, it seems remarkable that perhaps the most essential component of making smart growth work-dependable, affordable and convenient public transit-is getting the short shrift.

There’s no question SB 375, written by Sacramento’s Darrell Steinberg, represents a big step towards ending California’s obsession with sprawl. The bill would encourage the development of regional land use plans directing new development to urban centers and near public transit stations. Transportation funding and reduced environmental review would then be tied to projects adhering to those plans. The strategy could help bring the type of growth our state needs to get people out of their cars and significantly reduce our contribution to climate change.

But for the strategy to work, a crucial element of the effort must be addressed head-on: ensuring adequate state funding for public transit. Without this funding, SB 375 could end up being known for creating a series of plans that work great in theory-but have little real impact.

Smart growth does not operate on dense development alone. Be it for work, fun, or doctor’s appointments, people must leave their neighborhood sometimes. Without transit that gets people to and from their jobs quickly, provides the ability to go out at night once and a while, and remains affordable, one of smart growth’s main benefits – reducing the miles Californians drive – will be seriously compromised. And with the way budget negotiations are moving in the Capitol, it appears the level of transit necessary for smart growth to truly succeed won’t be coming anytime soon.

Governor Schwarzenegger released an August update to his budget proposal last week, proposing a half billion dollar cut to public transit. The proposal would redirect $250 million of gas tax revenue legally intended to go towards transit, and eliminate $317 million recently restored to transit by the Budget Conference Committee. While the details of the final deal won’t be revealed until the budget gets signed, the Bee recently reported that whatever happens, both the legislature and Executive appear willing to accept significant transit cuts as part of the solution to the current impasse.

The consequences of likely cuts can already be seen. Sacramento’s Regional Transit, for example, recently unveiled a plan to address what they expect to be an $18 million hole in their budget due to this year’s state cuts. Their proposal? Cut service throughout the region and substantially raise fares. Despite rapidly increasing ridership, sparked by rising gas prices and a growing awareness of climate change, many of those who just discovered the benefits of public transit will soon be facing higher prices for a lesser product.

Encouraging density over sprawl represents an important front in creating a less car-dependent state. But it’s only half the battle. And ultimately, it may end up being the easy half.

Developers, while slow to come around, often end up embracing the idea of ‘smart growth.’ Despite claiming their support involves a real commitment to the principles of sustainability, there’s usually another, obvious motive. The densification smart growth requires often means massive upzones in desirable areas, opening up an opportunity for these developers to earn some serious profit. Once housing gets built in these newly dense areas, however, the development community often gets curiously silent when it comes to paying for the transit improvements that should come along with the density.

It’s not easy to ensure funding for public transit, particularly when so many other vital services find themselves on the chopping block. But progressives should not give up the fight to obtain enough new revenue to adequately invest in our state’s public transit infrastructure and operations, this year and every year. Not to take away a single thing from Steinberg and the passage of SB 375, which should be celebrated by anyone who cares about climate change and livable communities – but the struggle to create a truly sustainable California has just begun.

Redefining the California Dream: Darrell Steinberg’s Smart Growth Plan

I will be on KRXA 540 AM at 8 AM to discuss this and other California political issues

Today Darrell Steinberg is expected to finally be elected as Senate President Pro Tem, bringing the failed leadership of Don Perata to a welcome end. George Skelton welcomes him to office with a column the landmark smart growth bill that Steinberg has been pushing through the legislature. Although the bill won’t pass this year, it has a big head of steam behind it, and faces good prospects in the 2009 session.

Steinberg’s bill would link land use planning in California to the AB 32 global warming targets:

“One issue everyone has been afraid to touch is land use,” Steinberg says. “Everyone understands about using alternative fuel. But land use has been the third rail. AB 32 changed the equation because now land use has to be part of the solution to global warming. You can’t meet our goal just with alternative fuels. You have to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled.

“If people are going to drive — and they are going to drive — we need to plan in ways to get them out of their cars faster. That means shrinking — not the amount of housing, not economic development, not growth — but shrinking the footprint on which that growth occurs.”

Steinberg wants it to occur within a smaller circle around downtown.

Basically the bill would work like this: Each metropolitan region would adopt a “sustainable community strategy” to encourage compact development. They’d mesh it with greenhouse emissions targets set by the California Air Resources Board, which is charged with commanding the state’s fight against global warming.

Also included are preferential funding for transportation projects that fit with the “sustainable community strategy” and an expedited permitting process for those developments that fit the law’s and the community strategy’s goals.

Tom Adams of the California League of Conservation Voters called the plan “the most important land-use bill in California since enactment of the Coastal Act three decades ago” and he’s right to say it. But the plan does more than help the environment and reduce carbon emissions.

One year ago I called for “redefining the California dream” – restoring the economic security of California workers by abandoning sprawl and turning to urban density and mass transit. This is not just an environmental move, but it is absolutely necessary for job growth, affordable housing, and basic financial security.

California can no longer afford sprawl. The national housing bubble burst right here, in the exurbs of Stockton, Modesto, and Moreno Valley. As gas prices rise at a rate of 30% every year since 2002, sprawl becomes literally unaffordable for most Californians, with a devastating ripple effect throughout the economy.

Republicans will predictably be furious with Steinberg’s plan, but that’s because they represent the emergent “homeowner aristocracy” – certain (by no means all) households that bought their home prior to 1990 or so, those who want to preserve the conditions of the 20th century at all costs.

As Jerry Brown recognized when he was governor 30 years ago, and still recognizes today, density done right is the key to maintaining the middle-class California dream for the 21st century. Only by following the Portland model of strictly limiting sprawl and encouraging infill development and providing the transportation options needed to serve that development can we bring affordability back to California, and secure the economic future for new generations of Californians.

Steinberg’s genius move is to link that strategy to the fight against global warming. It’s nice to finally see some real leadership from Democrats on this matter and particularly from the new leader of the State Senate. SB 375 may not make it to the governor’s desk this year, but it deserves our strong support in the 2009 session. It will transform California for the better, and there are few bills aside from SB 840 that can credibly make that claim.

CA-24: Richard Francis Mulling Challenge to Gallegly

The LA Times writes a story about a possible challenge in CA-24, one of the few Congressional districts in the state which is somewhat purple (registration is 44-34 Republican, but with a lot of DTS votes), by a big-name Democratic opponent.

For months now, Democratic activists have been urging Ventura lawyer Richard Francis to run next year for the seat held by Elton Gallegly, Ventura County’s longtime Republican congressman.

Gallegly’s backing of the Iraq war and his record on environmental issues could make the 11-term representative vulnerable with crossover voters who want the war to end and are worried about the effects of global warming, they argue.

Francis, the author of Ventura County’s popular slow-growth laws, Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, would be the most credible challenger to face Gallegly since 2000. In that year, Ventura lawyer Michael Case finished 13 percentage points behind Gallegly.

“He has name recognition because of SOAR. He’s working on a traffic issue in Oxnard right now. And he’s a former mayor of Ventura,” county Democratic Chairman Bill Gallaher said of Francis. “He’s out there with popular issues that seem to be supported in the area.”

Francis would likely not be the only challenger.  Jill Martinez, the 2006 candidate, may run again.  So might Mary Pallant, an ex-Republican-turned-progressive who was elected on the same delegate slate as mine in the 41st Assembly District.

Gallegly is always a threat to retire.  He pretty much did last year before changing his mind after it became clear he annonced too late for any Republican to run in his place. 

In a recent interview, the 63-year-old legislator said he was in excellent health but hinted that he still was thinking about retirement after two decades in office. For now, all he will publicly say is that he is keeping his options open for the June 2008 primary.

“The dynamics have changed dramatically in the last year or so. Now [the Republicans] are in the minority,” Gallegly said, referring to the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress in November. “Leadership has put a full-court press on some of the more seasoned people. It’s an honor to have people trying to convince you to stay.”

Gallegly said he’d make a final decision in January or early February.

Francis has made a name for himself in the the district with his drafting of a policy that enables voters to control the fate of any growth and development decisions in most of Ventura county.  These wildly popular initiatives have been vital to preservation and environmental protection in the region.  This could be a model for the nation if Francis is called to Washington to serve.

Obviously, the major issue in any race is going to be Iraq, and Gallegly continues to be a Bush rubber stamp, ignoring the will of the electorate in his district and throughout the nation.

But Gallegly, who has voted to support President Bush every step of the way, said he stands by his votes.

“I don’t know anyone who likes war. I don’t like war,” Gallegly said. “But I don’t like people who posture to do us great harm.”

He isn’t worried either that his environmental record will hurt him. According to the League of National Conservation Voters, Gallegly has voted 8% of the time in favor of legislation it supported over the last eight years.

I do think that this seat is ripe for a major challenge, whether by Francis or somebody else.  The demographics are changing as more Democrats priced out of Santa Barbara move in.  Ventura County Democratic groups have worked hard on voter registration and outreach.  If they unite behind a candidate who can raise enough money, I think they can make a play at Gallegly.