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How the State Legislature Impacts Local GovernmentBy Miriam Schulman
As someone who has served on a local school board, a city council, a county board of supervisors, the state assembly and senate, Joe Simitian has the experience to speak with authority about how different levels of government interact. Simitian, who recently returned to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors from the California State Senate, offered some advice on navigating those interactions at a meeting of the Center's Public Sector Roundtable Feb. 1.
Simitian identified three pitfalls in the relationship between cities, counties, and state government:
Simitian said candidly that elected officials at every level need to get over a sense of entitlement. "I spent 12 years in the California legislature listening to people in local government complain about Sacramento taking their money away from them. Their criticisms were sometimes valid; but I thought it was the public's money and that the public wanted us to spend it in whatever way it would do the most good, irrespective of jurisdiction."
As an example, Simitian pointed to the recent fight over the end of California Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs). The state legislature voted in 2012 to discontinue the program, which had been intended to direct government money to blighted areas. Simitian recognized that RDAs had made major improvements in many municipalities. But at the time the RDA funding came up for a vote, Simitian said, "we were cutting health care for some of the neediest people in California, taking away life and death services because the money wasn't there. Then I read about a redevelopment project in Sacramento called The Dive Bar (complete with mermaid!) that received $6 million in taxpayer money. At some point, we have to acknowledge what everyone would agree are the facts. Some RDA money had been abused over time." Simitian described himself as being in the "mend it don't end it" camp on the RDA issue, but he understood the impetus to cut the program.
Understanding, or empathy, was a quality Simitian urged all elected officials to develop. "I'm not talking about the big group hug, fuzzy kind of empathy. The kind of empathy I'm talking about is the ability to comprehend and identify with the problems of others. To negotiate, you need to empathize with the person you're trying to persuade. Local officials need to understand better the circumstances and thoughts that the 120 members of the state legislature are experiencing." That would include the sheer volume of issues they deal with, how challenging it is for them to be in touch with their districts when they have to be in Sacramento, the pressures of interest groups, and the expectations of their leadership, Simitian said. Similarly, he noted that his experience as a school board member, city council member, and county supervisor had helped him empathize with the extraordinary challenges faced by local governments over the past decade.
In general, Simitian suggested that citizens would be better served if officials "made some of these debates less ideological." Lawmaking, he argued is really an exercise in problem solving: "I find that's a helpful way to frame the issue. It avoids the stance of moral superiority and acknowledges areas where we have room for improvement."
Miriam Schulman is assistant director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.February 2013