No more Mr. Nice Guy

State Senator Darrell Steinberg was cited last week in an apparent “road rage” incident after aggressively tailgating a dark SUV with a “W” bumper sticker, honking and shouting, “Go back to Roseville, you stupid mother——— !”

OK, that’s not true. Upfront was just trying to think of something to say about Steinberg other than how “nice” he is. That was the headline last week when it became clear that Sacramento’s own was the de facto pick for leader of the Senate beginning next year.

Steinberg’s reputation for niceness has dogged him throughout his career. This paper even dubbed him the “Velvet Gavel” during his tenure in the Assembly.

Truth is, even his enemies concede that Steinberg is better than nice—he’s smart. He loves taking apart messed-up systems and putting them back together again. He took on the mental-health system with his Proposition 63 back in 2004, and he’ll likely get a shot at much broader health-care reform next year.

Upfront hopes that as Pro Tem, Steinberg will take on another broken system, one he’s tried to fix before: the unholy marriage between local government finance (you know, the way we pay for cops, roads and social services) and development.

You see it in Sacramento City Hall’s collective freak-out when they learned flood worries are going to stop new construction in the Natomas basin. And when Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo last week told the Bee, “We built the budget around too much need for construction,” she’s just acknowledging what Steinberg was trying to fix years ago.

Shortly after leaving the Sacramento City Council for the Assembly, Steinberg authored Assembly Bill 680, to reapportion the way local governments collect sales taxes. Under the current system, sales taxes collected in Elk Grove go to Elk Grove, money collected in Roseville goes to Roseville, etc. Steinberg’s idea was to have those sales taxes distributed regionally, to lessen the competition for new development and to help ease the inequities between the booming suburbs and the left-behind urban areas.

It’s wonky, arcane stuff. But this “fiscalization of land use,” as he calls it, goes to the heart of sprawl, ghettoization, traffic congestion and a whole host of other social ills.

Steinberg’s bill got creamed, of course, by builders, the League of Cities and foothills Republicans.

But you can see some of the same philosophy in his Senate Bill 375, which would make cities coordinate with the state on growth plans and to try and lessen the impacts of development on global warming. The same provincial interests who opposed him on A.B. 680 are opposing him again on S.B. 375.

This time, however, they might think twice about pissing off the guy who’s about to become one of the powerful politicians in the state—even if he is a really nice guy.