Redevelopment Greed Backfires

The best thing about the California Supreme Court redevelopment decision isn’t that the justices upheld the power of the Legislature to abolish the agencies that suck up and waste billions of tax dollars. No, the best thing was how the court did it: by picking up Proposition 22—the 2010 measure the redevelopment agencies wrote to exempt themselves from California’s budget crisis—and shooting the agencies with their own gun.

For those who haven’t been scoring at home, here’s the two-minute recap of the issue:

• Redevelopment agencies are devices for grabbing property tax dollars that would otherwise go to schools, colleges, and other useful public services. The agencies instead use them to subsidize development that voters would be unlikely to support if they had to pay for the projects with new tax dollars.

• Faced with diminished revenue and the prospect of deep cuts in essential programs, state lawmakers decide schools are a higher priority than downtown hotels, convention centers, and ornamental street lights. They shift the money grabbed by redevelopment agencies back to education.

• Redevelopment agencies fight back by writing and passing Prop 22, which bars the Legislature from taking away from redevelopment agencies the money they are taking away from schools.

• New Gov. Jerry Brown responds by proposing, in his 2011-12 budget, to abolish redevelopment agencies in their current form and reclaim, once and for all, the money for schools. He proposes a constitutional amendment to allow communities to pursue future redevelopment projects, but using their own money.

• Legislature enacts a two-bill compromise. One bill abolishes redevelopment agencies; a second bill hands them a lifeline, rescinding the death sentence of redevelopment agencies that agree to shift their tax booty to schools.

• Redevelopment agencies sue, arguing that Prop 22 prevents the lawmakers from mucking with their money or their fate.

Not so, the Supreme Court has now decided. The Legislature had the constitutional authority to create redevelopment agencies and likewise has the authority to end what it created. Prop 22 did not change that. But what Prop 22 did change, the justices found, was the Legislature’s power to shift redevelopment property tax dollars to higher priority uses. It therefore found that, under Prop 22, the Legislature no longer has the power to offer them a conditional lifeline.

“The irony of these circumstances concerning Proposition 22 should not be ignored — the very measure that was crafted to protect financing for new redevelopment projects has been broadly interpreted in a manner that effectively ends all financing for new redevelopment projects,” Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “This cannot be a necessary result intended by the proponents of Proposition 22 concerning redevelopment.”

Not the intended result, perhaps. But certainly the result they deserved.