Even under optimal circumstances, California is extraordinarily difficult to govern — more like a fractious nation than a culturally homogenous state.
Our size and our staggering economic, cultural, ethnic, even geographic and meteorological diversity not only create complex issues, but make the reconciliation of often bitterly disparate factions difficult, bordering on impossible.
Any legislation faces a series of procedural hurdles, all of which must be cleared for any proposal to be enacted. It gives affected interests, dubbed “stakeholders,” many opportunities to hamper or even block a measure they deem harmful, forcing sponsors to cater to their demands.
As major legislation undergoes multiple revisions on its months-long journey through the process, the end game is often one of three unsatisfactory results: the proposal is unable to garner enough stakeholder support and dies; it passes but it’s diminished to a pointless token, or concessions to interests make it an unworkable monstrosity.
The prime example of No. 3 is the 1996 legislation that purported to deregulate the state’s electrical energy industry, promising benefits to consumers, the economy and utilities.
It was an unmitigated disaster, allowing energy traders to game the convoluted power procurement process it created, driving consumers’ power costs up, creating blackouts, forcing Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy and pushing other utilities to near-insolvency.
The legislative sausage factory is grinding up another well-intentioned measure aimed at easing the state’s foremost crisis, a chronic shortage of housing that is heavily impacting California families and threatening to derail the state’s economy.
Senate Bill 50 was aimed at overcoming local single-family zoning laws to authorize higher-density, multiple-family developments that meet certain criteria in hopes of enticing developers to build more housing, particularly for the low- and moderate-income families that feel the biggest pinch.
However, it would potentially cut deeply into local governments’ traditional land use powers and thus potentially change many communities’ preference for bucolic single-family neighborhoods.
Its author, Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, faced an uphill battle, mostly with members of his own party and mostly those from Southern California, which is largely a collection of villages, even within its larger cities, segregated by their residents’ economic standing, ethnicity and culture.
“You can have the most streamlined process in the world and enormous funding for affordable housing, but if the zoning says you’re not allowed to build something, that’s the end of the process,” Wiener said during last Wednesday’s floor debate on the bill, which had been bottled up for months. “We’ve prioritized the way a neighborhood looks, that views are more important than who is actually able to live in a neighborhood.”
Wiener made dozens of revisions to lessen the impact on local governments in hopes of placating his critics, to no avail.
The bill failed, largely due to opposition from Southern California Democrats who said, in essence, they didn’t want Sacramento to have the power to alter the character of their villages. Wiener tried again on Thursday, facing a deadline for advancing bills left over from the 2019 session, but failed again.
It’s difficult to say whether the much-changed bill would have had a material effect on the state’s housing crisis, at least in the short run. The Senate didn’t even publicly post a layman’s explanation of its new, highly technical provisions before the floor votes.
However, it’s evident from the opposition that the crisis will continue unless the tribal not-in-my-backyard attitudes that stall much-needed construction are overcome.
“We’re in a world of hurt in California,” Wiener said before Thursday’s vote.
Yes we are.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.