Antonio v. Jerry on Realignment

There’s an interesting Sacramento vs. LA debate over what is called “realignment.”

That’s the term of art for the state’s efforts to give local governments more responsibility for certain government functions – notably by sending thousands of state prisoners back to counties.

While decentralization is the stated goal, there’s a very practical and legal reason: the state has to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce its prison population.

Since policy is political, and since the political is personal, there’s a personal political rivalry tied up in the debate.

Realignment has become a signature policy of Gov. Jerry Brown. It has been the target of criticism of many local officials, most prominently Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

This week the mayor and his police chief, Charlie Beck, complained that realignment has forced local law enforcement to take on the responsibility of managing people transferred from state prison – but without enough new money to do the job.

As a result, Los Angeles is shifting 150 police officers off the streets to help deal with the anticipated problems of the transfers.

This criticism of realignment, in turn, has opened up the mayor to criticism. Villaraigosa’s complaint about realignment seem at odds with another criticism he has made of Brown: that the governor hasn’t been bold enough in fixing the broken California governing system and taking on the politically impregnable Prop 13.

The Prop 13 governing system has centralized decision-making power in Sacramento.

So why is Villaraigosa now complaining about a “realignment” that is supposed to be decentralizing, in that it transfers some responsibilities to the local level?

Brown’s political advisor, Steve Glazer, called out Villaraigosa on Twitter this week, noting the conflict – and poking at Villaraigosa’s well-known ambition to be governor. Glazer’s tweet read: “Gov2B Villaraigosa follows Prop 13 reform plank by thumbing nose @Supreme Ct prison redction order. Realignmnt avoids early release/lowers $”

Glazer has a point.

This transfer of prisoners outside state custody is better than simply releasing them out on the streets. It’s cheaper to house prisoners in county jails or other facilities than it is to keep them in state prisons.

But the criticism is also misleading, for two reasons. First, it ignores the true nature of California’s centralized system. Second, it glosses over the fact that Brown’s “realignment” doesn’t address the source of the centralization.

How’s that?

The core problem in California’s system is that local governments don’t have the power – and thus the responsibility and the accountability – that comes with being able to raise taxes on their own.

Prop 13 centralized power not because it transferred programs to the state level – but because it eliminated the ability of local elected officials to set tax rates. Taxes now can be raised only in Sacramento – by a two-thirds vote of the state legislature – or by local voters (and then only by supermajorities).

True realignment would not merely dump costs and prisoners in the laps of the locals – which is what this realignment does. Real realignment would restore to local officials the ability to raise taxes to cover the costs of whatever programs are needed for prisoners.

But that kind of realignment requires taking on Prop 13’s prohibition on local taxes. And Brown won’t take on Prop 13 – or the kind of broader constitutional redesign the state needs. Which is why Villaraigosa is not hypocritical in his criticism. He’s been consistent – and is doubly right.

The mayor’s call for fixing the Prop 13 centralized system – and his criticism of “realignment” for dumping his city with more responsibilities without the funds to pay for them – are really two sides of the same coin.

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