Dan Walters: Steinberg's bills show his visions for California

08/26/2013 12:00 AM

09/04/2013 8:41 AM

Five years ago, Darrell Steinberg carried into law a sweeping revision of California's local land-use rules, aimed at creating what the legislation called "sustainable communities."

His legislation, Senate Bill 375, is still reverberating as all 58 counties and more than 400 cities, plus regional planning bodies, revise their land-use policies to emphasize high-density, infill and transit-oriented development and, inferentially, discourage traditional single-family housing and automotive travel.

This year, Steinberg, the president pro tem of the Senate, is once again attempting to alter Californians' lifestyles, this time through a new form of redevelopment and an overhaul of the California Environmental Quality Act.

When Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature abolished local government redevelopment agencies two years ago, their overt motive was financial.

The agencies were skimming off about $5 billion a year from local property taxes and the state was on the hook for about $2 billion of that diversion, which otherwise would have gone to schools.

"We take from redevelopment and we put $1 billion into schools. That's a good thing," Brown said, later adding, "It's just a matter of making hard choices."

From the broader perspective of public policy, however, the problem with redevelopment in California was that it had evolved from a program to reduce urban blight into a tool for local politicians to practice crony capitalism.

Quite a few proposals to resurrect redevelopment have been floated in the Capitol, and Steinberg's version, Senate Bill 1, is the most prominent.

It would rename redevelopment agencies as "Sustainable Communities Investment Authorities" and focus their activities on high-density, transit-oriented housing, low-income housing, and "clean manufacturing," such as solar panels and trolley cars, with "prevailing wage" workers.

The new agencies could issue bonds, levy sales taxes and seize land under eminent domain, but the old requirement to define blight in areas earmarked for redevelopment would be eliminated, thus vastly expanding their reach.

Steinberg has paired the bill, rhetorically at least, with his version of CEQA reform, which also would give special treatment to public or private projects that meet similar criteria of political correctness.

Steinberg holds visions of how Californians should be living their lives and wants state law and taxation to achieve those visions in ways that would discourage politically incorrect, albeit more traditional, lifestyles.

They are visions that may be shared by most of his fellow Democrats in the Legislature, but whether they're embraced by most other Californians – who may harbor more individualistic concepts of work, housing and transportation – is very uncertain.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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