Why has Jerry Brown turned his back on California’s cities?

When Jerry Brown was elected governor—for the second time—I was optimistic. In addition to serving as governor once before, as well as state Attorney General, Brown was also mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007. My hope was that his experience as mayor of a major California city would make Brown a pro-city governor. Sadly, this has not been the case. From shuttering redevelopment agencies to wimping out on CEQA reform, several of the Governor’s decisions have frustrated municipalities across the state and have many wondering if Brown cares about California’s cities at all.

Governor Jerry Brown's decisions are increasingly more anti-city

Governor Jerry Brown’s decisions are increasingly anti-city

In his most recent slight to cities, Brown decided to raid the state’s new cap-and-trade program revenues to beef up the general fund, even though it’s now running at a surplus. This is insulting to cities because some of the cap-and-trade funds are earmarked for transportation projects such as the California High Speed Rail and regional transportation upgrades. These transportation enhancements not only contribute to the state’s environmental goals, but help spur economic development and create jobs in cities. Instead, the governor wants to loan that money to the general fund, after saying last year that the funds would help pay for high speed rail.

Then again, this decision is not surprising considering how much money Brown has already taken from cities. In 2012, California was awarded more than $400 million in settlement money from the nation’s largest banks over wrongful lending practices. That money was supposed to be used to prevent foreclosures, stabilize neighborhoods and investigate financial fraud. Instead, Brown proposed using the settlement to patch up the state budget, even after HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan implored states to use the money as it was originally intended. Ultimately, Attorney General Kamala Harris announced the funds would be mostly used for housing purposes, but Brown’s message was clear: I don’t care about keeping families in their homes, I want a politically-easy way to balance the budget.

Brown has also shown little spine in pushing CEQA reform, the 40 year old state environmental review law that regularly stymies development with years of litigation. While environmental reviews are needed, CEQA is regularly wielded by parties who have no concern for the environment, but instead use the law to impede progress for their own selfish reasons. Last December, Brown said that CEQA reform was a priority moving forward, but in April, the governor back tracked and said that his administration will not pursue any CEQA legislation this year. Despite Brown’s cowardice, state lawmakers are pushing ahead with proposals for CEQA reform, working with both environmental and labor groups to try and get something passed this year.

Brown’s biggest affront to cities came in 2011 when his administration decided to axe all redevelopment agencies, boosting state coffers to the tune of nearly $2 billion in its first year. Through redevelopment agencies, cities were awarded a percentage of property taxes to fund infrastructure and redevelopment projects in blighted areas. Ironically, Brown was a champion of redevelopment as mayor of Oakland, using redevelopment funds to revitalize large swaths of the city. In the span of just a few years, it seems that Brown has completely forgotten his time as mayor and how crucial these funds were to his success in Oakland. The move to shutter the agencies left cities holding the bag with no funds to pay for the redevelopment of recently acquired properties.

To be sure, redevelopment agencies had significant problems, from lax oversight to blatant misuse of funds (if you have time, I suggest checking out this in depth article from Next City on the history and issues surrounding the state’s redevelopment agencies). Given these abuses, something had to be done to reform how cities could use these funds. But despite the program’s flaws, it did give cities a powerful tool to help rebuild neighborhoods neglected after years of sprawl, so it’s even more peculiar that attempts to reform the agencies to include more transparency and oversight have been met with tepid indifference by the governor. Brown has vetoed several reasonable proposals to bring back the agencies, saying it’s too soon to bring them back.

“I prefer to take a constructive look at implementing this type of program once the winding down of redevelopment is complete and General Fund savings achieved,” Brown said when he vetoed six bills in September.

In other words: “Cities, you’re on your own.”

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Categories: Community Commentary

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

3 Comments on “Why has Jerry Brown turned his back on California’s cities?”

  1. Jon Seisa
    May 17, 2013 at 12:03 am #

    WHY? …you ask… Well, since you asked—- I think to float the California government and budget artificially in the black by pillaging from all these peripheral neglected areas, and sustain this momentum one more year (hopefully two, via this modus operandi) for his reelection shoe-in come 2014… and then before the midst of the next term he will use these accolades of having ‘saved’ California as fodder for the big enchilada of the 2016 presidential election. He really doesn’t care about California, only about his future political glory, and he will do whatever it takes to grasp that ultimate gold ring, even turn his back on California cities.

    • David Garcia
      May 20, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

      I would be shocked if Brown sought the presidency. He is definitely taking the easy way out and I am very disappointed that he has not attempted to fix the state’s structural problems. Instead, he has pulled money from here and there to patch up the budget, but not fix it.

      • Jon Seisa
        May 20, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

        Well, I wouldn’t completely factor out political aspirations and ambitions just yet; but I definitely see your point about the disappointing easy way out (sigh). Californians deserve way better than this.

        It just baffles me that for a state with a leading maverick trend setting business sector and renowned think tanks (like the RAND Corporation of Santa Monica [the 6th ranked think tank on Earth], Silicon Valley’s Stanford University and Singularity University, and Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute of Public Policy and Graziadio School of Business and Management) that application of creative ingenuity and innovative solutions weren’t sought or tapped by the governor from such institutions and their cutting edge leaders for his Budget Solution Task Force. And surely there are other successful state budget management models that could have been gleaned for ideas and inspiration for a truly genuine and comprehensive fiscal budget overhaul. But rather, the best they could muster up and implement was a mere and mediocre “Borrow-From-Peter-To-Pay-Paul Model” and then continue business as usual. We’ll just have to keep holding his feet to the fire.

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