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Smart Growth Contributing to Local Fiscal Woes in California

Leonard Gilroy
August 10, 2009, 1:37pm

In recent years, California passed two greenhouse gas emission "control" bills—AB 32 and SB 375 (see Sam Staley's op-ed here)—that aim to force local governments and regional planning authorities to reduce GHG emissions through a set of onerous smart growth and transportation planning mandates that in the end will likely have very little effect on emissions but a significant and dampening effect on local and regional economies.

Unfortunately, the costs of these unfunded state planning mandates appear to be contributing to widespread local fiscal woes. As Louis Dettorre at PublicCEO.com writes today:

California environmental bills Assembly Bill 32 and Senate Bill 375 are putting pressure on local governments, especially in these hard economic times.

AB 32, also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, sets a goal of lowering California's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to levels seen in the year 1990. Measures have followed this bill that reduce emissions from landfills, semi-trucks and things requiring an EPA approval.

Director of Land Use Services in San Bernardino County, Julie Rynerson Rock, said that the Attorney General hit the county with a lawsuit nearly a year-and-a-half ago. The City of Stockton was also hit with the same lawsuit. Attorney General Edmund Brown claimed San Bernardino's and Stockton's plans did not account for greenhouse emissions. [...]

AB 32 does not include specifications for city and county planning departments in regards to emission standards. This has become the dilemma, as planning departments now must utilize their land in ways that will reduce gas emissions. [...]

Rynerson Rock said of the process to mandate these new regulations, "It is an involved process, and very expensive." Burt Southard, Media Relations Coordinator in San Bernardino County, said, "We continue to have our reservations on the cost implications to counties."

SB 375 states that the metropolitan planning organizations must put Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS) in their regional transportation plans. For the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cities and counties must align plans for transportation and housing, and create specified incentives for the implementation of the strategies. [...]

"The governor is continuing to put on unfunded mandates, and is taking away money," said Rynerson Rock. Niblock said that the Stockton is feeling the same budget squeeze, and is aggressively pursuing outside funding. [...]

Rynerson Rock expressed that there is a real concern for good planning, air quality and doing the right thing environmentally, but the real question is how to fund this during this economic time.

Costly state lawsuits and planning mandates are forcing deficit-ridden local governments to divert resources away from safety and other core government priorities at a time when local officials need full discretion on how to best prioritize and trim their budgets. Cities and counties would probably drop this planning like a hot potato if the legislature were to say, amend these laws to delay implementation for a few years to give local governments time to ride out the fiscal crises.

Making things worse, state leaders are raiding local government funds to pay for its unsustainable spending addiction, effectively drawing down local coffers at the same time that the state is requiring them to spend more money to "fight" GHGs.

Something's seriously wrong with this picture. It's bad policy to force all sorts of costly and dubious planning and research on local governments ill-equipped to handle it at a time when deficits are growing, long-term pension and health obligations are spiraling, and fiscal responsibility should be paramount.


Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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