A Field Poll conducted several weeks ago found 53 percent of Californians still think the state’s ballot initiative process is a good thing. Voters also think the public, rather than elected representatives, “is better suited to decide upon large-scale government programs or projects” (57 percent to 33 percent).
This outlook is especially relevant to local governments entering the murky waters of public-private financings of infrastructure and economic development, just when fiscal austerity is driving cuts to education and public safety. The debate about redevelopment that simmered over the last year framed developer subsidies as a direct drain on schools at the same time that the state’s budget crisis threatened teacher layoffs.
Now redevelopment is waiting under the guillotine as the state Supreme Court deliberates on whether to uphold or overturn the Legislature’s policy of redirecting billions of dollars. The court is expected to hear oral arguments on November 10 and decide the case in mid-January.
In the meantime, California voters may be getting comfortable with the idea of a post-redevelopment landscape. The public had already harbored mixed feelings about redevelopment. And the power of inertia suggests that, after this year’s setbacks, it will be harder for redevelopment to redouble than it was for it to hold its own, even if the Supreme Court rules in its favor.
For any given project now, the burden of proof will rest more on the project’s supporters than on its opponents. And the voting public is more likely, perhaps than ever before, to find its way to the jury box.
Several factors will intensify the difficulty of getting a public-private project past the public’s smell test. First, the state is already down the path of solving its budget crises through cuts to public services, which included education. The state budget that was passed in June made sharp reductions in K-12 school funding, higher education, and health services.
And the punishment isn’t over yet. For the last three months, the state’s tax revenue has fallen $705.5 million below what state officials anticipated when they enacted the June budget. That shortfall could mean additional mid-year cuts to the university and community college systems, corrections, and in-home supportive services.
And if revenues lag by more than $2 billion, it will trigger a $1.5 billion cut in K-12 spending that means a seven-day reduction in the school year and an end to some home-to-school buses. It will be difficult for parents seeing their children’s school year shrink to remain sympathetic to developer subsidies.
The trajectory of voter skepticism also suggests greater scrutiny lies ahead. The same Field Poll cited above also found 71 percent of Californians believe the voters make better decisions in the public interest than their elected representatives, up from 42 percent in 1982.
When that trend intersects with increasing austerity, public scrutiny of government projects will likely escalate – especially for public-private partnerships or any deal that involves subsidies. Redevelopers and other local agencies would be in grave error to take the public’s consent for granted, even for small projects.
Therefore, the onus is on local governments, now more than ever, to actively sell their projects through outreach, transparency, and service. They must reach out to their constituents, build support, solicit feedback, and tread carefully. In particular, the mission of redevelopment has never faced a higher level of skepticism, perhaps in its entire history. Local officials would be wise to tailor projects to the expectation of profuse public involvement and questioning, and to be nimble and adaptive to public will.
An important point from Sacramento’s arena situation: Last week’s poll shows residents want to vote on a subsidy, but an earlier poll also shows strong majorities support the concept. Voters aren’t necessarily hostile to public-private developments; they just want to have a say.
Josh Rosa is a Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commissioner