Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dan Walters: Legislature blithely interferes with local decision-making

Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee
June 3, 2011 Page 3A

While state legislators pay lip service to local decision-making, they also claim a divine right to intervene in local conflicts by siding with one faction or the other, even when it means overturning ordinary governmental and legal processes.

Sen. Juan Vargas, who made it back into the Legislature last year by the skin of his teeth, embraces that dubious, time-dishonored practice with measures that would intervene in two local development flaps.

The one-time San Diego assemblyman defeated fellow Democrat Mary Salas by just 22 votes after one of the hardest fought and most expensive legislative primary contests in California history. He then coasted to an easy win in the November election in the heavily Democratic 40th Senate District, which sprawls along the state's southern border, and may run for Congress next year.

Business groups poured money into Vargas' campaign while Salas was favored by labor unions and other elements of the party establishment. And one of her financial supporters was the California Tribal Business Alliance, a coalition of casino-owning Indian tribes.

However, one Vargas bill, Senate Bill 833, takes the side of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, one of those casino-owning tribes, in a bitter fight over a 308-acre landfill disposal site in San Diego County called Gregory Canyon.

Gregory Canyon Ltd. has been working nearly two decades to secure multiple state and local permits – including two successful ballot measure campaigns – and establish the site over the objections of the Pala Band and some environmental groups. In 2000, then-Gov. Gary Davis vetoed a bill to block the project.

The firm was on the cusp of final approval when Vargas stepped in with SB 833, which would block the project and thus give a win to the tribe and other project opponents who had lost in other arenas.

Meanwhile, another Vargas bill, SB 469, inserts the state into a long-running controversy in San Diego over development of "superstores" by Walmart and other big retailers, taking the side of grocery store unions and Walmart's competitors who were losing at the local level. The measure would require such stores to undergo economic-impact analyses, giving opponents more legal ammunition.

A city ordinance once required such analyses but Walmart qualified a ballot measure to challenge the law and the city rescinded it. Now Vargas wants to make it state law – very selectively, because his bill would apply to Walmart but exempt Costco and similar stores.

It should be bothersome that legislators who can't balance the budget or otherwise perform their legitimate duties would blithely interfere with years of exhaustively detailed permitting procedures, as the Gregory Canyon bill would do, or overturn local land-use processes, as the Walmart bill would do.

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