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Agencies, Growth Council Jockey To Assume OPR's Responsibilities

California government never fails to amuse. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears poised to eliminate his own Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and nobody – not even the state's planners – is rushing to the beleaguered office's defense. Yet throughout Sacramento, vultures are hovering, because while OPR itself may not be worth saving, the carcass appears to have value.

The California Air Resources Board is staking a claim on OPR's role in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) – though the legal power to change the CEQA Guidelines lies with the Natural Resources Agency. The CARB is already in the planning game, of course, thanks to SB 375. Nobody knows where the general plan guidelines will land; the most obvious place to put them is somewhere in the Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency – maybe the Department of Housing and Community Development. (Wouldn't the locals love it if HCD oversaw all general plan elements, not only the housing element!)

Meanwhile, the California Energy Commission is trying to figure out what to do with the $20 million it controls in federal Energy Efficiency Block Grant funds, which could be used to finance climate-sensitive general plan updates. The new Strategic Growth Council is deciding how to dole out $90 million in planning money from Proposition 84, even though the Legislature has already given $12 million of it to regional planning agencies for modeling. And, attempting to take its mission seriously, the Strategic Growth Council is also undertaking a number of other efforts that look like the stuff OPR is supposed to do.

In other words, OPR is not exactly being eliminated. It's being broken up like a debt-ridden company that still has some valuable assets. Because OPR has a pretty checkered history anyway, maybe the breakup isn't such a bad idea. The question is whether the resulting reconfiguration will bring better coordination of planning in California, or only create a bunch of planning mini-fiefdoms in Sacramento, all jockeying with each other for power.

The discussion about OPR's future began with the state budget deal, which called for the office's elimination. It's not surprising that OPR is on the chopping block. The office has long been criticized as a lackluster performer, largely because it is housed directly in the governor's office and is therefore hostage to the governor's agenda. In this current budget environment, the only political asset OPR had – patronage jobs that the governor controls – has become a liability. Breaking up OPR and scattering its pieces throughout the state government allows the governor to say he is eliminating  positions in his office as a cost-saving measure. In June, Schwarzenegger called OPR "a total waste."

So far, most of the talk about OPR has revolved around the State Clearinghouse, whose most important role is to coordinate public agency review of documents produced under CEQA. Schwarzenegger has proposed shifting this role to CARB, which regulates air pollution. The air board has, of course, been given considerable power over land use planning as a result of SB 375, which requires regional planning agencies to do regional plans that meet CARB's targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction (see CP&DR Insight, January 2009). Processing CEQA documents so that different state agencies can comment on them isn't exactly the same thing as regulating air pollutants, but in a world where climate change drives most environmental policy, maybe they're close enough.

Schwarzenegger's proposal quickly drew the attention of veteran Sacramento policy analyst Peter Detwiler, staff director of the Senate Local Government Committee, who drafted a memo to his committee a couple of weeks ago explaining OPR's wide-ranging duties under the law and laying out four possible alternatives, including dismantling the office. The solution Detwiler seemed to favor was what he called "shrink and focus" – moving the State Clearinghouse to the Natural Resources Agency and other functions to the Department of Finance while allowing OPR to focus on general plans and the quadrennially required (though rarely produced) Environmental Goals and Policies Report. (This report was last produced by Gov. Gray Davis the day he left office in 2003, and labeled an "instant historical curiosity" by Sacramento insiders (see CP&DR In Brief, December 2003). It also appears to be on the chopping block.)

It's unlikely that Detwiler's recommendations will be followed in Sacramento, though his committee could stall an OPR elimination bill by insisting on careful study and multiple hearings. Nevertheless, the Detwiler memo appears to have blunted the clearinghouse-to-CARB idea by noting that the Natural Resources Agency is a much more logical home for the clearinghouse. OPR already works jointly with the Natural Resources Agency on the CEQA Guidelines, whose revisions must be issued by the Natural Resources secretary, not the OPR director.

Maybe the most interesting playlet surrounding the main OPR drama, however, has to do with the Strategic Growth Council, which appears to be positioning itself as OPR's successor in coordinating state planning and growth policy. The Strategic Growth Council was created by Legislation last year (see CP&DR Insight, March 2008) largely to promote and coordinate infrastructure investment, though it was also given a wide-ranging mission to promote sustainable development. The agency also controls the $90 million from Proposition 84 set aside for planning – at least when the Legislature isn't spending the money.

The Strategic Growth Council has six members: four Cabinet members (BTH's Dale Bonner, Natural Resources' Mike Chrisman, Cal-EPA's Linda Adams, and Kim Belshe of Health and Human Services), OPR Director Cynthia Bryant and one public member, Bob Fisher, former chairman of The Gap. (The Fisher Family owns the remains of Pacific Lumber Company, and Fisher himself is a former board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

The Strategic Growth Council adopted a resolution some months ago stating that "early money" from Proposition 84 should go to blueprint planning efforts around the state. The initiative itself says the money should be for "urban greening projects," including at least $20 million for urban forestry. Nevertheless, the Legislature has appropriated $12 million for regional planning agencies to do modeling for SB 375, and the agencies apparently want far more money for modeling in the future. So it will be interesting to see if the Strategic Growth Council flexes its muscles on Proposition 84 funds in the future.

Potentially more interesting, however, is the way the Strategic Growth Council interprets the rest of its mission, which includes promoting sustainable growth and coordinating the planning- and growth-related policies of the four agencies represented on the council. California has been down this path many times before – most recently with the passage of AB 857 in 2002, which requires state agencies to follow a "smart growth" approach. Nothing much ever came of that, but because the Strategic Growth Council includes four Cabinet members, it could carry a lot of clout if the members wanted it to. The council will soon add two full-time staff members – presumably transferred from OPR.

Big, diverse California has never successfully figured out how to shape and implement growth policy in a consistent and comprehensive way. No governor ever gave OPR a wide enough berth to give it a try. The breakup may make coordination even more difficult, or, alternatively, the Strategic Growth Council could become a more effective, streamlined version of OPR, focusing on policy and coordination while leaving the day-to-day duties to the line departments. Folding OPR would definitely be a loss, but using a Cabinet-level group to coordinate policy wouldn't be the worst outcome in the world.
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