Last week, the City of Sacramento launched an initiative to streamline the city’s building plan review. The initiative, called “Streamline Sacramento,” will allow builders to submit plans, schedule appointments, and check the status of their plan or inspections, all online. The city will also implement an express lane for minor projects and create an expedited plan review process for builders who are designated “consistently prepared applicants.”

At the state Capitol, lawmakers and regulators are also experimenting with ways to smooth the permitting process. Last year, Governor Schwarzenegger created an Office of Economic Development with expert staff whose sole duty is shepherding complicated projects through California’s maze of state, federal and local regulations.

The office also provides an online permit assistance center that, following submission of a simple questionnaire, provides a listing of all required permits, licenses, registrations and approvals, as well as webpage links, addresses, application forms and contact information.

And just several days ago, the Lieutenant Governor again emphasized the need to remove “onerous and inconsistent regulations” with the release of his California economic plan, an outline of opportunities and priorities for the future of the state’s economic development strategy.

Meanwhile the Legislature is considering a measure to reestablish the state’s Office of Permit Assistance. In the 1980s and 1990s, the OPA regularly guided businesses through California’s regulatory web. It was housed then in the State Trade and Commerce Agency. When the agency was dissolved in 2003, OPA went with it. And lawmakers have mulled reestablishing the regulatory guide ever since.

Three years ago, the Legislature enacted SB 375, carving a clean path around some of the more nettlesome obstacles that CEQA places before developers. While viewed primarily as a greenhouse gas reduction bill, SB 375 also enables perhaps the most wholesale streamlining of environmental regulations since the Permit Streamlining Act of 1977.

With no doubt, the hurdles posed by government regulations have received greater attention since the collapse of California’s real estate and construction industries. With the state’s unemployment rate hovering near 12 percent, policymakers face with heightened anxieties the difficult balancing act inherent in government’s police power.

Government has an obligation to protect the public interest from the adverse effects of commerce, like pollution and unscrupulous practice, while also respecting the economic necessities of letting businesses grow, profit and hire. A natural friction develops between regulation and commerce, made up by the slowness of bureaucratic processes, fallibility of regulators, and costs of understanding and complying with numerous complex rules.

The perennial goal of easing this friction has consumed the disciplines of public policy and administration for generations. But economic recession has a way of invigorating that pursuit, perhaps by reminding policymakers that the consequences of red tape are not academic, but can be counted in jobs and wages.

Josh Rosa is a Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commissioner