As California's big-city mayors rallied in Sacramento to save redevelopment agencies from the fiscal chopping block, Gov. Jerry Brown defended his proposal to ax them in his budget — and argued that he would be doing so with public support.
Sitting at the head of a wooden picnic table in his cabinet room, Brown called the redevelopment agencies a "piggybank" that the state needs to crack open to fund education and local services as California grapples with a $25.4-billion deficit over the next 18 months.
He said that shutting down the state's nearly 400 municipal redevelopment agencies is a critical part of his budget plan and would save $1.7 billion.
Cities across the state have angrily denounced Brown's idea and rushed to shield the funds from any state raids. Hours before the mayors of the state's nine largest cities met with Brown on Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to spend up to $52 million in redevelopment funds on public improvements around a planned downtown museum.
Redevelopment has become a flashpoint in the budget debate. State Controller John Chiang announced this week that his office would dispatch auditors to review the books of 18 redevelopment agencies. Cities say the agencies create jobs and transform blighted areas. But projects often involve subsidies that some labor unions call corporate welfare.
A new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California suggests that voters are on Brown's side. The survey, released late Wednesday, shows 66% of Californians support phasing out funding for redevelopment agencies and using it for schools and other services.
The poll also found that two-thirds of Californians support Brown's plan for a special election on taxes and a majority is satisfied with the governor's budget proposal.
Brown said the findings confirmed his instincts.
"My hunch is that redevelopment is a somewhat mysterious process to the average voter," he said. "If you're saying you're going to close the county hospital or lay off firefighters or you're going to eliminate something called redevelopment, I think more people are going to say, 'I think we can do without redevelopment. We can't do without public safety or schoolteachers.' "
He added: "The defenders of redevelopment have a hard sell."
Brown challenged the mayors to find alternative spending cuts if they want to keep redevelopment funds alive. "My message is: If not you, who?" he said.
The mayors accepted the governor's challenge, announcing that they would form a working group to find ways to, as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa put it, "shoulder a fair share of responsibility for this state deficit."
Mayor after mayor stepped to the microphone at a news conference on the steps of the Capitol, describing redevelopment agencies as among the few tools in their arsenal to bolster economic development, particularly in poor neighborhoods. The funds have led to tens of billions of dollars in private investment, they said.
The mayors also tried a bit of guilt on Brown. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said he told the governor that his new residence, a downtown loft, is the result of a redevelopment project. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said she reminded Brown, one of her predecessors, that some of his signature achievements as mayor — Oakland School for the Arts and the historic Fox Theater — used redevelopment dollars.
"It's not about dollars. It's not about buildings," Quan said. "It's about hope for cities that are having a hard time."
Villaraigosa defended the recent moves of many cities to spend and allocate redevelopment dollars as lawmakers debate Brown's budget proposal.
"I understand why folks would move quickly to protect those assets, because they're protecting jobs and economic development," Villaraigosa said.
Legislative leaders heard the pleas Wednesday. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, a former commissioner of the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles, appeared to back Brown. In a statement, he said the mayors "must be actively working to identify alternative budget savings in lieu of redevelopment funds."
In his remarks to reporters, Brown acknowledged the benefits of redevelopment but said the state could not afford the agencies in a fiscal emergency.
"Some of this redevelopment has been going on for 20, 30, even 40 years," he said. "We've got a lot of the redevelopment thrust, and now we're going to have to move away from it or we're going to have to cut more deeply."
He said the mayoral delegation was part of a coming wave of discontent about his budget plan.
"The hallways are going to be crowded in the coming months with people who say, 'Please keep the money coming.' And my message is, 'The money is not there,'" Brown said.