What is one of the best strategies for increasing funding for schools, libraries, police departments, community health clinics and neighborhood parks? Prevent redevelopment agencies from annually seizing $5 billion in property taxes for what are too often vast bureaucracies and ill-conceived projects. Fortunately, Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed 2011-12 budget found $2.7 billion in savings from disbanding redevelopment agencies and ending enterprise zones. AFCSME, which represents thousands of state workers, applauded Brown’s proposal to “eliminate the ineffective enterprise zone program and to end redevelopment subsidies statewide.” But Brown’s plan has already been described by Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa as a “non-starter,” and the California Redevelopment Association is threatening to sue to stop the cuts. As Redevelopment Agencies statewide mobilize to protect their money – ignoring the drastic school cuts required if their financial empires are saved – the public should support Brown’s courageous plan.

The nightmare of California’s proposed 2011-12 budget had one silver lining: it forced Governor Brown to examine the sacred cows of the state budget. This led him to conclude that eliminating redevelopment agencies (hereafter, “the RDA”) would alone inject $3 billion a year into “schools, libraries, law enforcement and other ‘core functions.’”

But the ink on Brown’s budget had barely dried before the vast Redevelopment empire struck back. This empire is the California equivalent of the national military industrial complex, as its funding crosses the state to reach the pockets of high-powered law firms, local mayors, city councils, County Boards of Supervisors, big developers, chain retail outlets, real estate speculators and, most importantly for public relations purposes, affordable housing groups, as state law requires that RDA’s spend 20% of their funds on affordable housing.

In practice, this 20% rule is widely ignored. In fact, RDA’s lobbied mightily in Sacramento to prevent sanctions from being imposed if counties failed to meet this affordable housing minimum. So while San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and other pro-housing cities follow the law, it appears from their aggressive statewide lobbying that most RDA’s do not.

So when you hear San Francisco RDA folks talk about how much it spends on affordable housing, realize that at least 80% of the money spent statewide goes for other purposes (such as creating, and then renting, commercial space to Starbucks, Panda Express, Subway and other RDA-favored chains).

The RDA Media War

The day Brown’s budget proposal was released, the RDA began its media campaign against the cuts. The San Francisco Chronicle obliged with a one-sided, pro-RDA story that quoted several Bay Area officials attacking the cut but did not name a single person favoring Brown’s plan.

Most egregiously, the Chronicle reporters never asked these RDA defenders what health, human service, and educational programs should be cut to make up for the $2.7 billion savings from redevelopment’s demise.

Isn’t this really the entire issue?

California’s budget crisis has forced Brown to propose a budget that cuts payments to the disabled, devastates home health care, batters our already damaged state college and university system, and makes many other cuts that tear deep holes in our social safety net. If RDA defenders seek immunity from these cuts, they need to announce where to find the $2.7 billion they want restored – otherwise, as Brown has repeatedly stated, they are not serious about a budget solution.

By cutting the RDA, Brown prevented any cuts to the K-12 school system. And I believe most Californians favor funding schools over subsidizing redevelopment agencies.

Putting aside questions of RDA’s cost effectiveness (and Brown’s budget plan found they are not), our state’s legislators must decide whether they should be allowed to continue to divert billions in taxpayer dollars away from schools, police, parks, and community health care at a time when these core services are at the breaking point.

Framed in this manner – which you are unlikely to see in the pro-RDA corporate media –
Brown’s budget plan is a no-brainer. Every dollar the RDA protects from Brown’s budget proposal comes from somewhere, and most likely it will come from California’s kids.

Explained honestly, that’s a trade few Californians would knowingly make.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.