Ron Kaye: A legislative system gone awry

I don’t know how to break this bad news to you, but for all the fun and games our legislators are having in Sacramento these days, the joke is on us — the taxpayers, the residents, workers and students.

They may turn to fisticuffs at the least slight and shout denunciations at each other over ideological postures that are totally illogical, but it’s the voters who get the bills, who see our kids short-changed in their educations, who see dangerous criminals dumped on our streets without parole supervision, who see our once great state becoming a national joke.

We voted to require them to fulfill the constitutional mandate by adopting a budget by June 15 or forfeit $400 a day in pay. So they pass the budget at the last minute, but it’s so phony and unbalanced, the governor vetoes it — yet they still hope to be laughing all the way to the bank without losing a cent.

They abolish community redevelopment agencies and seize their $1.7 billion in tax increments with one measure and then pass another bill giving cities the choice of keeping their agencies alive but with only a trickle of dollars.

For city officials in Burbank and Glendale, this poses big problems coming on top of their own budget problems.

The twin redevelopment measures have passed both houses — with local Democratic legislators Sen. Carol Liu and Assemblyman Mike Gatto listed as supporters — but have not been sent to the governor for his signature or veto. They are hostages in the political fun and games of both parties.

“They are jeopardizing our plans for street projects, park improvements, a community center,” said Burbank Deputy City Manager Joy Forbes, who estimates the community redevelopment agency legislation could cost the city $16 million in the next year and make it impossible to recoup the $50-million loan granted to get the agency going originally.

On a disaster scale of 10, she rates the loss of tax increments the city keeps from its redevelopment investments at 8.5 and, like Glendale City Manager Jim Starbird, questions why the abuses of redevelopment powers — including the ability to seize private property under eminent domain and give it to other private interests — weren’t cleaned up rather than getting rid of, or gutting, a program that has worked so well to keep their cities healthy.

“They should be going after the cities that screwed up,” Forbes said. “Where’s the crackdown on the abuses?”

As a longtime critic of those abuses by the city of Los Angeles — subsidizing luxury hotels, entertainment venues and condominiums in downtown and Hollywood while the infrastructure in the rest of the city deteriorates — I see her point.

Redevelopment money — the increased revenue generated by it that largely would go for schools, police and other services — has helped Burbank and Glendale out-compete L.A. for job-generating businesses while being able to keep the streets and sidewalks paved, trees trimmed and the quality of life in the neighborhoods protected. There are certainly projects that are questionable, but it’s not being used as welfare for the rich as it is in L.A.

Starbird, an expert in redevelopment and a board member of the state Community Redevelopment Agency Assn., believes the measures “essentially puts us out of the redevelopment business” with a loss of $11 million in the next year and only enough revenue in future years to fulfill existing contracts and commitments with the state taking take $400 million in revenue from redevelopment.

“This is history in evolution,” he said. “This is as significant as anything we’ve seen, bigger in some ways than Proposition 13, and it is being done in a stealth fashion.”

Starbird believes political gamesmanship — not policy — is at the heart of what’s going on and warns that the state likely will only get half of the $1.7 billion expected because so much money already is under contract.

Glendale is likely to opt out of the abolition provision and keep its redevelopment agency alive since even with little free money to spend, it provides tools to expedite planning and development.

The real problem we face, of course, isn’t the abuses of redevelopment agencies or the overcrowded prisons or under-funded schools.

It’s the failure of a political system that allowed for gerrymandered legislative districts allowing the overwhelming majority of legislators to come from the political extremes. The result is they have enjoyed their political games while budget deficits soared and critical issues went unresolved.

The last two governors proved incapable of dealing with the legislative gridlock, and Jerry Brown is now at war with his own party — and both parties continue to be in a death struggle with each other.

There is hope in two measures that voters approved that will soon impact the political process. The newly created citizens redistricting commission has proposed maps that put many incumbents into the same district and provide more balanced electorates.

Combined with the new voter-approved open-primary law that will be in effect next year, it’s possible the balance of power will shift to the center, and policy could triumph over politics for the first time in decades.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if one of these days, the voters got the last laugh?

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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