Get smart

Join in: Supporters of AB 680 urge locals to join them at a “lobbying day” rally on the north steps of the Capitol on January 24 at 11:30 a.m.

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg got fed up with hearing everybody (including the SN&R!) complain endlessly about the plain, ugly truth that sprawl causes the Sacramento region to have the worst air pollution and traffic congestion in the country. So the man did what came naturally—he used his smarts and plotted a solution.

Steinberg’s extraordinary fix is a Do The Math piece of legislation that, basically, creates incentives for intelligent regional planning and growth. The beauty of AB 680—especially in a world where legislation usually has the tail wagging the dog—is in its root determination that the solution to sprawl lies in a basic redistribution of sales tax.

The way things work right now, cities and counties get to keep the sales tax paid within their borders. This creates a strong, bottom-line, fiscal incentive for localities to chase after auto malls, big-box retail stores and shopping centers, which generate high sales tax revenue, instead of non-sales tax generating industry that might actually create more jobs and economic stability in that community. The current setup skews how communities make planning choices. Interestingly, this sales tax chase began as a result of Proposition 13 which, in 1978, shifted how cities finance themselves by limiting property tax growth.

Here’s where the Steinberg bill comes in.

Beginning in 2003, AB 680 would launch a pilot program in the six-county region of Sacramento that would have jurisdictions dividing up new sales tax revenues in a rational, more equitable way with a third of it staying in the locality, another third distributed throughout the region and a final third rewarding communities that apply “smart growth” standards.

Some have made the debate over this bill out to be a war between booming suburbs and older cities. Indeed, opposing the bill are 45 smaller, mostly suburban California cities who have rounded up about $100,000 for a lobbying and public relations campaign. Roseville leads this charge—not surprising, considering this city has the highest sales tax revenue in the region thanks to its auto mall and huge new Galleria shopping center. On the other side, Steinberg’s bill boasts a broad, grassroots coalition of larger cities, environmentalists and community groups who have raised $120,000 for their push.

Ultimately, though, this is no war. It’s just the way smart change has always worked: good idea + pitched battle = transformation. Hopefully. AB 680 is expected to make it through the Assembly Appropriations Committee this week and then up for a vote before the state Assembly on January 31. If it passes there, AB 680 will have jumped its toughest hurdle because a Senate nod and signature from the governor seem likely.

Nobody ever said solving our bad air and traffic problem was gonna be easy, or simple. But it’s time to quit the complaining and move to a fix. Let’s hope our representatives do the smart thing this month and make Steinberg’s bill a law.