Opinion » Dan Walters

State, local relationships in flux as Gov. Brown looks to shift powers

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The relationship between California’s state and local governments has been, to put it mildly, tortuous over the last several decades.

Prior to 1978, state and local governments, including schools, operated fairly independently. Counties operated some health and welfare programs for the state and schools got some state money, while cities had almost no interaction with Sacramento.

All of that changed when voters slashed local property taxes by passing Proposition 13 in 1978. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature quickly enacted what was termed the “bailout,” shoring up schools and local governments with billions of state dollars.

At the time, it was assumed that the bailout would be temporary, especially since the state was running deficits and dipping into its reserves.

However, it quickly evolved into a semi-permanent assumption of governmental costs, especially for schools. And as the old saying goes, the one who pays the piper calls the tune, so the state began dictating how its local aid would be spent.

The relationship turned downright nasty in the early 1990s, when the state, facing big budget deficits, forced cities and counties to shift billions of dollars in local property taxes to schools, thereby allowing the state to reduce its school spending.

Ever since, the state has periodically raided local treasuries and the locals have sponsored ballot measures to protect their revenue from Sacramento’s depredations.

Brown is governor again and is proposing to undo, at least partially, the 1978 bailout by shifting some programs to local control. But local officials, burned in the past, are leery. They want ironclad guarantees that the money to finance them will follow.

Brown appears bent on asking voters to approve higher taxes to close the state’s chronic deficit and wants to send part of the money directly to local governments.

There is, however, a rub. If the new revenue is to be permanent, they’d be a very hard sell to voters; but if they are temporary, the locals would not accept any permanent reassignment of duties.

Another rub is that Brown apparently also wants to abolish city redevelopment agencies, which skim about 12 percent of property taxes off the top, and force the state to spend about $2 billion extra on schools each year. Finally, there is the whole issue of land-use regulation, local governments’ most cherished power.

This is a yeasty mixture of countervailing factors, indicating that the state-local relationship will not be settled anytime soon.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.