The State vs. Cities: Adding Up the Collateral Damage

Supreme | Photo: Public access sources

City council members in California are the voters' most trusted elected officials. State legislators? Not so much. In a recent national survey, cities get high marks for the quality and extent of their services -- a 73 percent approval rating. State government programs rate a disappointing 38 percent.

And where it really counts -- in recent elections where voters have chosen to tax themselves for services -- it's cities that Californians value and city council members whom they believe.

So why is the state Legislature continuing to undermine the ability of cities to pay for the services that cities provide? And why is the Legislature concentrating more authority in Sacramento at the expense of local voters?

Jealousy, perhaps?

San Rafael City Councilman Marc Levine (and candidate for Marin County's seat in the state Assembly) has a more complicated answer, beginning with the historic unraveling of California's government financing system in the aftermath of Proposition 13. Then, what had been clearly defined as state revenue and local government revenue was radically blurred.

The inevitable outcome was an unprecedented (for California) extension of hegemony over cities and the ascendency of Legislators over city council members.

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"When I joined the San Rafael City Council," Levine wrote, "I was shocked to learn that the state takes a chunk out of revenues from local parking citations. Parking rates go up or services go down, even though the state has no role in local parking enforcement. That's just one way the state takes money from local governments, and it's far from the biggest."

Since the late 1980s, Levine noted, the Legislature has shifted billions of dollars in local revenue from cities to to backfill the yawning holes in school district and county budgets. Voter-approved tax limitations, state revenue giveaways, and years of legislative deadlock over tax reform have made matters worse.

Conditions have become so chaotic that the Legislature -- at Governor Brown's urging -- instituted a kind of "debtor's prison" for cities that can't meet the state's revenue demands. Daily fines for non-compliance, the loss of city sales tax revenue, and other punitive measures are in place -- or in the planning stages -- if cities are late in turning redevelopment agency funds over to the Department of Finance.

According to the Associated Press: "While most cities and counties have made their redevelopment payments to the state, the Department of Finance reported that 27 have not paid or underpaid the state. According to figures provided by the Department of Finance, the state is seeking a total of $129 million from those agencies. So far, only some have paid part of the bill, returning just $6.7 million."

Some of those cities -- Stockton and Brea, for example -- simply don't have the tens of millions of dollars the state assumed their redevelopment agency had. But the 2012-2013 state budget was based on the assumption that they did.

The non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office is already warning that there will not be as much money from the dismantling of redevelopment agencies as expected.

No one in the state Legislature is openly talking of punishing cities further to backfill the state's deficits, but there is an inevitability in the trend toward the concentration of power in the Legislature -- the power to extract local revenue, to define the level of services city residents receive, and to diminish the ability of local voters to shape the quality of life in their neighborhood.

When did voters decide to give the Legislature this vast new role in our everyday lives? And who trusts the state Legislature to not make a mess of it?

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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