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Dan Walters: Policy-making's upward shift

The Sacramento Bee, June 15, 2000

One of the more unusual, and perhaps more questionable, California trends of the past generation has been the upward shift of political decision-making from locally elected governments to state government in Sacramento.

The new state budget is a monument to political concentration, containing literally tens of billions of dollars for projects and programs that once would have been financed locally -- some as relatively tiny as a neighborhood swimming pool. One of the oddest, slipped into the budget by Gov. Gray Davis and Democratic legislators, is a $5 million multimedia tribute to comedian Billy Crystal's immigrant family at a private Los Angeles museum, designed by a Walt Disney subsidiary.

It is, some contend, an unintended consequence of Proposition 13 and successor measures, which limited local governments' powers to raise taxes, while the state's treasury is awash in taxes. But the state could simply share the bounty with local officials, allowing them to spend the money as they see fit. Instead, unrestricted aid to local governments is maintained at low levels while state politicians load up the budget with pork barrel projects. And it's just as common among supposedly conservative Republicans as among liberal Democrats.

The Sacramento-knows-best attitude is not confined to feeding at the budget trough. It's manifested, as well, in dozens of bills that deal with matters, including political disputes, that should be settled locally. A few examples:

When Los Angeles legislators decided they didn't like the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' decision to restrict the size of a new hospital in East Los Angeles, they threatened to withhold state aid until a larger hospital was approved.

Last week, the Legislature approved a measure that takes the side of a politically influential development firm, Majestic Realty, in a long-running squabble with the city of Redlands in San Bernardino County over what should happen in the so-called "doughnut hole," a patch of unincorporated territory surrounded by the city. The bill, if signed by Gov. Gray Davis, would allow Majestic to build a shopping center on the land regardless of the city's wishes. Davis vetoed one pro-Majestic bill last year and now will be given another chance to interfere.

Another new bill interjects the state into another long-simmering political fight in Downey over whether the meetings of a quasi-private agency, the Downey Community Hospital Foundation, should be open to the public because city council members are on the foundation board. The bill would allow city council members to attend even closed meetings without running afoul of the state's open meeting laws, expanding an exemption that was first enacted in 1996.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton is carrying a bill that would modify the environmental review of San Francisco International Airport's proposed expansion, which involves filling wetlands in San Francisco Bay. This partial exemption from the state's environmental laws is clearly aimed at helping San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Burton's old chum, speed up the airport expansion by making it more difficult for opponents to short-circuit the project. And it was revealed last week that the firm conducting the airport environmental impact studies is largely owned by Richard Blum, husband of U.S. Sen. (and former San Francisco Mayor) Dianne Feinstein.

When these or other locally oriented measures are questioned in the Capitol, legislators simply label them "district bills" and count on the Legislature's tradition of mutual back-scratching to win approval.

DAN WALTERS' column appears daily, except Saturday. Mail: P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852; phone: (916) 321-1195; fax: (781) 846-8350

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