We are in trouble and I think more and more of us are beginning to realize it. I attended two community meetings last week in Auburn and at both meetings people wanted to talk about Assembly Bill 680 (Steinberg) despite the fact that it wasn’t on anyone’s official agenda. AB 680, authored by Assemblyman Steinberg (D-Sacramento), one of the most powerful and influential legislators in the State Capitol, would set up a so-called “Regional Smart Growth” pilot program that would reallocate sales tax revenue in the Sacramento-Sierra Foothills region and would require local cities and counties to spend a significant portion of their allocated share of the sales tax revenue on low-income housing, social programs and open space programs.

While Assemblyman Steinberg is right to point out the problems caused by cities and counties feverishly chasing sales tax generators, like big box stores, at the expense of affordable housing and the preservation of working agricultural lands and open space, his proposed solutions would have the effect of siphoning sales tax dollars from the Sierra Foothills and transferring the money to Sacramento County. It’s a Robin Hood scheme.

Further, the bill would tie the hands of our locally elected officials on how they may spend the sales tax money that we do retain. Maybe we want to spend more money on police and fire protection. But under AB 680, our local spending priorities would take a backseat to whatever priorities and formula the movers and shakers come up with the State Capitol.

Since the introduction of AB 680 last year, the bonds of regional cooperation are breaking and the start of a regional civil war looms on the horizon. A better approach than AB 680 and a good first step toward promoting local smart growth policies would be for the Legislature to return the billions of dollars in property tax money that is annually steals from cities and counties. With that tax grab, state elected officials created powerful incentives for locally elected officials to chase sales tax generators and they should reverse those policies. And certainly, locally elected officials can do more to ensure that our land use, affordable housing, and transportation planning policies help our rural character and maintain and quality of life that we have come to enjoy.

So what are you going to do about AB 680? Capitol insiders know that there are generally two ways to kill a bad bill – the conventional approach and the creative approach. The conventional approach is to simply line up as many opposition groups as you can muster and lobby legislators to either vote “no” or abstain from voting so that the bill fails to obtain a majority vote in either the committee or later on the Assembly floor and Senate floors.

If you’re the “David” and the other guy is “Goliath” in any legislative battle, you are going to have to be more creative to put more votes on your side. One creative approach is to craft so-called “friendly amendments” that would, if adopted, essentially strip the bill of its effectiveness. Sometimes the mere offering of a carefully crafted “friendly amendment,” even when not adopted by a committee or on the floor, can cause previously supportive legislators to change their minds and their vote on the bill itself. A successful “friendly amendment” strategy can change the psychological balance of power and, in the end, begin to change votes.

That’s why a more creative approach, a slingshot, if you will, may be the only option available for the “Davids” in the Legislature who represent suburban and rural counties. Using charts of population and sales tax revenue data and a copy of the newly drawn legislative districts in hand, the opposition to AB 680 could put together a series (maybe 10 or more) of “friendly amendments” that could be offered in committee and on the floors of the Assembly or Senate that would be used to highlight for many legislators that they actually do have a horse in this race.

For instance, a “friendly amendment” could be offered that proposed that the AB 680 pilot program could be expanded to the Bay Area and that under this scenario, Saratoga would be required to transfer a portion of their locally generated sales tax money to Redwood City. A legislator who represents Saratoga but not Redwood City would suddenly see AB 680 in a new light.

Our best hope for avoiding regional civil war will be the strength of the arguments of our local representatives that there is a better and more feasible approach to solving local problems. During the next two weeks, AB 680 will be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee and on the Assembly floor. Goliath is approaching. Depending on the outcome of these votes we will soon find out if the opposition to this bill came up with a slingshot or two to use.

January 18, 2002

Postscript: AB 680 died in the Senate.