All California governors try to turn into Pat Brown sooner or later, so it’s not surprising that Arnold Schwarzenegger has now done the same. What’s surprising is not that Schwarzenegger is using Pat Brown’s legacy, but that he’s using nearly the same suburban model as Pat Brown did almost a half-century ago.
Schwarzenegger’s “Strategic Growth Plan” – his proposal to spend $222 billion on infrastructure construction during the next decade – is clearly meant to be the centerpiece of his political reinvention and the key to his re-election next fall. If he succeeds, Schwarzenegger’s plan will probably be the state’s roadmap for planning and development during the next 20 years, just as Pat Brown’s roadmap for highways, water projects, and higher education was used during the 1960s and ’70s.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, because California has long since exceeded what might be called its “design capacity.” The Pat Brown building boom (which really had its roots in the administration of a Republican governor, Earl Warren) set the table for a mostly suburban state of 20 million people – essentially, the California of 1980. Twenty-six years later, California is an increasingly urban state of 37 million people, with a population of 45 million likely by around 2020.
The state’s planning apparatus is gradually adapting itself to this new reality, but no new comprehensive vision has ever emerged from the state’s leadership on the scale of the Warren-Brown vision. And now Schwarzenegger has reached back to the Wonder Years to appropriate the Warren-Brown vision of a half-century ago: Freeways. Shiny new school campuses. Levees to protect new subdivisions.
In fact, the only indication that it’s 2006, not 1960, is how Schwarzenegger plans to pay for everything. He proposes no tax increases. And while there are a few new fees (especially a fee on water hookups), his proposal mostly suggests rearranging revenues and bonding capacity that already exists. In this sense, Schwarzenegger has not really “gone Democrat.” Instead, he looks a lot like a moderate Republican, which is to say a lot like Pete Wilson. Schwarzenegger has always been close to Wilson, and there is irony in the fact that Wilson’s failed growth management strategy in 1993 was called the “Strategic Growth Plan,” exactly the same moniker Schwarzenegger has chosen for his infrastructure plan.
There are three ways to look at Schwarzenegger’s plan: One is the revenue. The second is spending. And the third concerns vision.
On the revenue side, Schwarzenegger couldn’t be more Republican. He has not proposed any new taxes, nor has he proposed much “new money” (as they call it in Sacramento). Instead, the $222 billion Strategic Growth Plan involves a lot of rearranging. It is built mostly from capital funds the state will get anyway, along with new bonds that voters would probably face at some point, and some bonding against existing revenue sources (meaning that other spending priorities will be pushed aside). Here’s how it breaks down:
• Almost half ($100 billion) consists of revenue that the state and local governments will get anyway to build transportation, education, and flood control projects along with a few other things. This includes federal gas tax and Proposition 42 transportation funds, as well as state school bonds that have already passed and local school bonds that would have to pass in order for local districts to qualify for state matching funds.
• About a third ($68 billion) is essentially a pre-emptive proposal on how to expend the state’s bonding capacity over the next decade. State bonds don’t require tax increases; they simply pre-allocate the general fund. And while $68 billion sounds like a lot, in fact the voters passed $35 billion in infrastructure bonds (plus the $15 billion economic recovery bond) from 2000 to 2004 alone. Voters would likely see between $40 billion and $50 billion in new bond proposals over the next decade even without Schwarzenegger’s plan.
• The remainder ($53 billion) is advertised as “new funding,” but a lot of it is iffy. The governor includes $9 billion from the presumed passage of local transportation sales taxes and $14 billion in matching funds and mitigation money from the port and freight sector. He also includes $3 billion in GARVEE bonds (bonds against federal funds), and $14 billion in bonding against gas tax and weight fee funds, which is permissible under the state constitution. In each of these cases, the state is bonding against revenue streams that would flow anyway.
Then there’s what Schwarzenegger would spend the money on. Here he straddles the middle somewhat more, though still with a rightward tilt. Schwarzenegger suggests throwing a huge amount of money into public education facilities, both K-12 and higher ed. But every governor of California paints himself as “the education governor,” and Schwarzenegger must sop the education constituencies after last year’s viscous campaign over the his pro-business, anti-union initiatives.
Most of the rest of the money would be thrown at transportation and flood control – and most of the transportation money would be for highways, not transit or alternative transportation. As far as water and flood control goes, the persistent rumor in Sacramento is that “there’s a Peripheral Canal hidden in there somewhere.” And there’s no money for open space or housing – both of which have been the subject of successful bond campaigns during the last few years.
The governor’s approach has alienated housing advocates, who have been living on Proposition 46 funds the last couple of years, as well as open space advocates, who have been planning their own 2006 bond act. All this sets the stage for an interesting legislative debate on Schwarzenegger’s plan over the next few months. On the one hand, you can see how a partisan shootout is shaping up, with the Democrats blocking the governor because he’s not paying attention to transit, affordable housing, and open space.
The legislative battle could turn into a grand compromise, or it could degenerate into partisan bickering over the summer, once the Democratic nominee to oppose Schwarzenegger is selected. You can expect more partisan bickering if the nominee is Phil Angelides, who sells bonds as state treasurer, has the backing of the unions, and is a nationally recognized advocate of smart growth.
Which brings us to the governor’s vision. At best, Schwarzenegger has recycled Pat Brown’s Wonder Years vision of California’s. That may help drive more funds into infrastructure construction – a worthy outcome in itself – but it’s questionable how much headway such a vision can make against the problems of a rapidly changing and intensely urban state in the 21st Century. More money for highways is fine, but in most urban areas it’s both geographically and politically impossible to expand the freeways. Vast amounts of money for new schools is great too, but there’s hardly anyplace to put them either, unless the governor is willing to lead the charge to rethink what school campuses look like, how they function, and how they interact with the communities around them.
It is worth remembering that there is a law on the books that is supposed to guide the California state government’s actions, including infrastructure investment, in a visionary way. That’s AB 857 from 2002, which calls on the state to protect farmland and natural land, promote infill development, and encourage greenfield development to be compact in nature. It’s not a bad set of guiding principles for re-designing California in the future. Of course, it was passed by a Democratic legislature and signed by a Democratic governor, so we haven’t heard about it lately from the administration.
But that doesn’t mean AB 857 can’t form the basis for a bipartisan vision of the future – or even a Republican vision for that matter. The goal of infrastructure investment hasn’t changed in the last half-century – it’s to help elevate people into the middle class. But who those people are has changed, and so have the conditions they are up against. It’s time for a 21st Century vision to go along with the $222 billion plan.
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