October 26, 2002 - From the October, 2002 issue

Sen. Peace On Regional Government: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

The efficacy of term limits certainly is debatable. But there is no questioning the impact Senator Steve Peace's tenure has had on the Legislature and on San Diego. This year, Sen. Peace sponsored and passed a bill (SB1703) consolidating transportation and land use decision making bodies in San Diego in the name of a more thoughtful and efficient regional decision making process. TPR is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Senator Steve Peace, in which he addresses the challenges of regional governance, our dysfuctional state/local relationship, and his personal plans for the future.


Steve Peace

Senator, you've been legislatively interested in regionalism for years. And, with San Diego as the laboratory, and with new state legislation signed into law, you've birthed a new paradigm for regional governance in the state. Why this focus?

In modern society, which is impacted so principally by population growth, the reality is that there is not enough capital, either public or private, to continue to deliver services in the same manner that has evolved. Either we reorganize ourselves, become more efficient and rationalize that service delivery system, or the fundamentals on which we built our economy and our social system won't hold.

This has been the case for more than a decade and I think we're finally seeing the reality of our failure to recognize that. Local government budgets are really an illusion because they benefit from massive subsidies from the state, contrary to the popular political rhetoric from local government folks. The reality is the post-Prop. 13 environment created a circumstance in which the statewide taxpayer dramatically subsidizes the local delivery system. I'm not arguing that's a bad thing given the Prop. 13 reality, but we need to recognize it as a reality. We centralized the revenue collection process and tried to preserve the illusion of a decentralized decision making process.

Similarly, on a social front, the way in which people interact with each other is more mobile, not less mobile, and more transient, not less transient. People tend to live in a given area for a shorter period of time and work at a given place for a shorter period of time. They think of their relationships in their community in a broader context, not in a narrower context. So we struggle with the regionalization of the mind, if you will, and the regionalization of the socialized fear of losing control. That's a very legitimate fear. The more distant the decision makers get, the higher the threat of the possible loss of what I refer to as the ‘character of the village.'

Whether people are talking about tax reform or a need for infrastructure, local government or regional government, they really are all talking about the same thing. They're talking about how you organize the relationship between wage earners, business people and their government and the services that we choose to deliver through the collective power of governing organizations. How do we reorganize that methodology in such a way that we can have a reasonable expectation to be able to sustain services over the next millennium?

If form should follow function-an architectural dictum with relevance to your regionalism agenda- what ought to be the functions and powers of government at the regional level?

The great genius of the American system over 200 years is its adherence to the principles of checks and balances. We have to proceed with caution while recognizing the lack of strong regional organizations so that we don't accidentally empower those regional organizations and create new problems. The key is striking a balance-taking a moderate force and recognizing there's an imbalance in that decision making. Underneath all of that, you need to align the revenue collection responsibilities to the revenue expenditure responsibilities.

I'd argue that most of the dysfunction today is associated with one of two factors: either there's no alignment between the responsibility to collect revenue and the responsibility to spend it; or, there's a lack of clear authority for taxpayers, workers, and citizens to hold responsible for problems or heap praise upon when things go right.

What are the larger lessons to be learned from your efforts to shepherd this regional reform agenda for San Diego?

Like any effort to effect change, you have to make judgments about how much you can get done and how fast. And that's not only because there's a natural inclination for the status quo to resist change, for both good and bad reasons, it's also not a good thing to change too quickly. I heard an interesting presentation recently by the people who were involved in reorganizing the transit authorities in Los Angeles as they looked back on what they did right and what they did wrong. One of the more interesting comments was the fact that, in retrospect, they felt they had underestimated the barriers and the difficulties that were presented by fusing two separate cultures together. If they had the opportunity to go back and do it again, they would have taken that into consideration and moved far more cautiously with respect to how to knit those groups together.

In San Diego, the regional government advocates-the people advocating more aggressive changes-are probably somewhat disappointed with the most recent changes in the legislation that I carried this year (SB1703). They would have liked to have gone further and faster. But it's counterproductive to produce a change in government structures when you don't have a broad enough consensus so that you don't fall into the trap of simply having everybody dedicated to proving it will fail the moment you invent the system.

So we were able to bring along those interests who were generally expected to be the most resistant to change at all. And actually, we had them embrace a level of change they never would have been willing to support as little as 18 or 24 months ago. And that's a more valuable accomplishment than simply using the power. A more aggressive work product could have been shoved down the throats of local government officials. But, I don't think that would have been productive for the community and I don't think it would have been successful.

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We've done two things of note in San Diego. We created a single and central forum for discussion of the policy issues rather than individual forums for transportation planning and land use planning. And, just as importantly, we broke through the natural, instinctive, and bureaucratic opposition to change.

Now that the change is there, and it brings together these competing interests in one organization, there's a fear that the core mission of transit might be compromised. That's okay. They should have that fear and they should fight to make sure it doesn't occur. I am a big transit advocate. I think aggressive deployment of transit is really the core value in redefining how our communities operate. Without effective transit, you can't reasonably expect to see the densification changes and patterns that you need to see if you deal with the kind of population growth that's inevitable. I totally adhere to and understand their fears. But, by the same token, in the realm of real human interaction, those fears become barriers to change and barriers to potential progress. We got through both those hoops in San Diego.

For our readers following what you have accomplished in San Diego, how should they judge whether you have been successful in jump starting local government reform? What are the benchmarks of success?

Well, there's been dramatic progress made in San Diego just as a result of the tension created, with significantly improved communication amongst the various organizations. Will that sustain itself? That's the first thing. The second thing to look for actually will be counterintuitive. I think it's important they get to the business of getting some things done and get beyond the discussion and dialogue of how to reorganize themselves still further. It's important that you not just stay in a perpetual state of internal re-evaluation.

There are a lot of things happening in San Diego. We have decisions to make regarding an airport, on what to do about the supply of water. Ironically, these higher profile issues provide an opportunity for the folks in the transit and planning and land use world to quietly go about the business of organizing themselves to be prepared to physically make proposals for change. I think the local media are going to be more focused on the airport decision and on the water issues that are in front of us.

Given the lack of success by Assemblyman Steinberg with AB680; and, given the impact of term limits on the ranks of those senior legislators who have grappled with fiscal and governance issues since Prop 13, who do you imagine will now lead the charge in the legislature for reforming the state's dysfunctional fiscal relationship with local government?

Well, the Hertzberg Commission has completed its prior work. The speaker has now appointed his legislators to focus on tax reform, which I think will immediately gravitate into the same subject matter. There is an existing Governor's task force dealing again with tax issues. Mr. Burton is going to put together a Senate sponsored mission. There's the possibility that all those work products could meld into one. But if they don't, they'll move forward simultaneously. The university systems have all indicated intense interest in participating. So that dialogue, one way or the other, is going to move forward.

The business community, the environmental community, and the labor community are all going to have to be at the table. The reality of a term limited legislature is that the prime skill set of the politician is not to have better ideas than everybody else, but to bring people with better ideas together and see if they can put together a compromise.

I believe the members of the Legislature are every bit as committed and as bright as they ever were, but they don't have the opportunity to develop the same skills in the new environment of term limits. In fact, they're almost too committed because they're too emotionally invested in their own ideas. As a consequence, they can't get themselves in a place to allow the people that have to live with the consequences of the compromise to interact. As a result, it's going to require citizens of this state to be far more disciplined about identifying and exercising leadership within themselves, because it's not going to come from the Legislature.

Last question. What do you do for an encore now that your legislative career is ending?

Well, Mrs. Peace says I can do anything I want, as long as the media isn't interested in it. I'm sure that I will, in some capacity, continue to be involved, when requested, in terms of speaking out on issues that are important in my community and, to the extent that others think I can be helpful, as a participant in a statewide debate. I don't have any vocational plans associated with that kind of enterprise. But, as a citizen, I'll certainly recognize my responsibility to stay active and be involved.

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