VENTURA — Maybe it's not surprising that Pete Wilson's long-expected growth-management policy is getting lost in the economic shuffle. When he ran for governor in 1990, the growth question was a major campaign issue. These days, when you ask Wilson's aides what happened to the policy, their eyes roll toward heaven--they only wish that the governor had some growth to manage. The drum roll for the debut of Wilson's growth-management strategy has been postponed from January to March to . . . well, nobody really knows if it will come at all.
Yet a governor with more vision might understand the political opportunity that growth management presents. Sure, right-wingers will always resist the idea; to them, it smacks of big-government intervention and sounds uncomfortably like one of Josef Stalin's five-year plans. But most people want action on the economy, and a properly positioned growth-management strategy could be a cornerstone of Wilson's long-term plan for ensuring California's prosperity--if only he would connect the two issues.
Curiously enough, while consigning his growth-management strategy to oblivion, Wilson appointed the Ueberroth Commission--the Commission on California Competitiveness--and charged it with figuring out why the state's business climate is so lousy. But the reasons, other than the recession, are fairly obvious. Despite a drop in prices, housing still costs twice as much as the national average. It's difficult to win approval to build new development projects, even when they're undeniably necessary. Traffic and smog haven't eased much, largely because local governments don't or won't or can't coordinate their local land-use policies. State agencies charged with building infrastructure and conserving resources move in conflicting directions.
In other words, business is fleeing California because we're not doing a good job of managing our growth. Even the members of the Ueberroth Commission will probably come to that conclusion. After all, they all probably drive on the San Diego Freeway. Furthermore, growth-related issues aren't going away because we're in a recession. Nobody has reported a decline in traffic congestion because the jobless rate is climbing.
What growth management means--or what it ought to mean under our governor--is making our system of planning and development more efficient and more productive, so that needed economic expansion can take place using a minimum of resources. Proper governmental guidance on growth issues would go a long way toward helping California not just environmentally, but economically.
Other states have already made the connection between growth management and economic prosperity. While Wilson was shelving growth management, a team of researchers from Rutgers University issued a report showing that New Jersey's long-term growth-management strategy would be an economic boon to the state over the next 20 years. According to the study, New Jersey's plan encourages the same rate of growth as market forces, yet the state would save $400 million in operating costs to local governments and school districts, $440 million in water and sewer infrastructure and $740 million in roads--all while eating up 130,000 fewer acres for development. This is not news--federal researchers documented the staggering long-term cost of suburban-style development almost 20 years ago--but it should remind Californians that managed growth can bring needed efficiency to our system of planning and development.
In Florida, the state's landmark growth-management law was passed in 1985, partly because business and banking leaders wanted Florida to have California-like economic prosperity without California-sized problems. The growth law is under attack these days, partly because of the soft Florida economy. But many business leaders still see it as a tool of "sustainable" economic growth--their latter-day equivalent of the great investment in public infrastructure (highways, water, universities) made during the Earl Warren and Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr. years in California. Some of them have even suggested that the growth-management law comes in handy when they try to cherry-pick California businesses, because it proves that the state is serious about maintaining its quality of life.
Yet Wilson--former San Diego mayor and self-described growth-management pioneer--doesn't seem interested in connecting the "competitiveness" question to the growth-management issue. His political advisers seem to think that if the governor utters the words \o7 growth management\f7 , the Republican right will accuse him of being Willie Brown in political disguise. In fact, a well-reasoned growth-management strategy could help Wilson differentiate his position on growth issues from the big-government approach favored by Brown.