Why Won’t Cities Fight Real State Budget Cuts?

by Paul Hogarth on January 24, 2011

Regardless of what one thinks of Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate redevelopment agencies to balance the state budget, the response from city governments has been hysterical. At a gathering last week of the League of California Cities, hundreds of mayors and council members screamed bloody murder – and now the group has threatened to sue the state over it. Where was this anger during the Schwarzenegger years, when state budgets repeatedly made cuts to health and human services that had a direct effect on local services? Gutting redevelopment agencies will affect how local government spends money, but it also means the state won’t have to cut as many local services like parks and libraries. Somehow, the League of California Cities cares more about redevelopment. Meanwhile, local governments are shutting down community clinics – due to lack of state funds.

In June 2009, San Francisco closed a $500 million budget deficit – under the specter of looming state budget cuts. “I am very alarmed by the foot that can drop in Sacramento,” said Budget Chairman John Avalos at the time. “Our work today stands very vulnerable before us.” One month later, the state went ahead with more budget cuts – which almost wholly affected health and human services. Despite protections to shield the blow at the local level, we still saw mid-year cuts in San Francisco that year, although they were less severe than expected.

I tell this story, because it raises the question of what the League of California Cities has done in the past several years – legally or politically – to fight cuts from Sacramento that had an immediate local effect. Now, they are up in arms at Brown’s proposal to abolish redevelopment agencies. As Randy Shaw has written, these undemocratic entities go to bloated bureaucracies that do more to bring Starbucks than actually invest in affordable housing. But for years, the state budget under Governor Schwarzenegger and the legislature would make direct cuts to services – leaving cities like San Francisco (and other less progressive places) to fend for themselves locally.

In fairness, this is far from the first time that the League of California Cities has stood up to Sacramento. In 2009, they sued the Schwarzenegger Administration for its raid of gasoline tax revenue. Likewise, they sued to block Arnold’s bone-headed idea to “borrow” property tax money to balance the state budget. But in those particular instances, we had the state directly robbing local tax revenue – which would otherwise fund local public transportation or city services.

Redevelopment agencies, on the other hand, do not translate into direct city services like parks and community clinics – but instead to fund large bureaucracies that reward their cronies with minimal public accountability. While some may see Jerry Brown’s proposal as a “power grab” by the state that tells local governments how to spend their money, the truth is that it can prevent some devastating budget cuts that have been afflicting localities for years.

On its website, the League of California Cities describes itself as “an association of California city officials who work together to enhance their knowledge and skills, exchange information, and combine resources so that they may influence policy decisions that affect cities.” Rather than suing the state to stop wasteful spending on Redevelopment Agencies, the League should be devoting its muscle at advocating for local services to be spared in the budget process.

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