By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Just in case 2,500 pages didn’t answer what would make our despised state government work better, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put the question out to the public this week.
“I want to hear directly from you,” said Schwarzenegger at a ceremony in Sacramento, where he formally received a massive blueprint to reshape state government. “I am asking every citizen.”
Make no mistake, he’s going to get an earful. And so far, commercial interests are considerably more chipper about the reform plan than, say, environmentalists or consumer advocates.
Take, for example, the bureaucracy that protects the environment.
That’s an easy one, says Tony FranÃ§ois of the California Farm Bureau Federation. If a farmer needs to use pesticides, make the process easier, so that there aren’t three different agencies telling him what to do. And be reasonable: The cost of complying with some environmental standards just isn’t worth the benefit.
Au contraire, says Sujatha Jahagirdar, clean-water advocate for Environment California. Her vision of an improved state government is one that’s tougher on policing agribusiness and less subject to influence from lobbyists.
Schwarzenegger hopes to make them both happy with the government-reform plan unveiled Tuesday. But the most united chorus is the one that says this thing will never fly in anything like its current form.
The mammoth California Performance Review encompasses nearly everything but the court system and the Legislature, although Schwarzenegger has separately talked of wanting a part-time Legislature. This behemoth was so top-secret that even Schwarzenegger and senior aides claim they didn’t see the document before Tuesday.
The portion that deals with environmental protection is typical of the whole. It would shrink bureaucracy by folding multiple, quasi-independent agencies into one. The state water board, which works to clean up water pollution, would disappear, as would the Air Resources Board, which handles air pollution. Both functions would fall under the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, putting them more directly under the governor’s control.
As pitched, the idea is to make government more efficient, and maybe it would be. But along the way, Governor Schwarzenegger — and future governors — also would become more powerful and the state’s government less open to public scrutiny and participation. Activists also worry that simplification could mean a loss of checks and balances against corporate lobbyists, whose own influence on government will be at least as strong as ever.
In money terms, proponents claim the proposal would have the vital benefit of saving $32 billion over five years. Critics call that wishful thinking, which, come to think of it, could describe many assumptions underlying this year’s state budget, which is at least as debt-ridden as anything proffered by the deposed Gray Davis.
The heart of the extreme environmental make-over is to collapse the air and water agencies into the existing Environmental Protection Agency. Less controversial is a sweeping consolidation of departments that manage trash and waste. But the air and water agencies have a legacy of driving cutting-edge advances. The air board pushed for the catalytic converter, clean-burning gas, hybrid engines and electric vehicles. The water board tackled storm-water runoff, the leading source of water pollution.
“This system has had significant positive effects on the state’s health, environment and economy,” says David Beckman, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. “California is looked at across the country and the world as a model of government that’s done the right thing, rather than as an example of inefficiency and failure.”
Each threatened agency has its own board, its own analysts, its own public meetings and its own niche of authority. In the view of the farm federation, the current setup encourages activists to be obstructionists. “They tend to prosper in a climate where you’ve got to see five different people or agencies to get permission to do something,” says FranÃ§ois. “All they’ve got to do is convince one of those five to say no. They say, ‘How can we get rid of the board that gave us smog checks or catalytic converters?’ But that misleads people into thinking air quality would not be protected.”
In reshaping government, is it even possible to make Tony FranÃ§ois and Sujatha Jahagirdar happy at the same time?
Yes, says FranÃ§ois. He cites farmers and ranchers trying to stabilize and restore eroded streambeds along California’s central coast, from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara. “Nobody’s really against that,” he says. “But you may need two permits from Fish and Game, and another maybe from the Corps of Engineers and another from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Instead of saying, ‘Here’s a good project — go knock yourself out,’ the view is, ‘We’ll exact fees and make restrictions and prohibitions.’
“The idea is, how do you help the environment without breaking the bank or bureaucratizing it to death?”
The report, in fact, goes on for page after page about how to simplify getting permits as well as other interactions involving the government. FranÃ§ois’ organization was among many that provided input for the report.