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Hubris, in fact, might help to explain SCAQMD’s lavish spending on itself — both its leaders and the lobbyists they pay to protect their status quo. According to various public records, the agency’s notoriously high-handed executive director, Dr. Barry Wallerstein (whose annual salary exceeds six-figures), has traveled on the company dime to such swank getaways as the Resort at Squaw Creek and Granlibakken (both at Lake Tahoe), La Quinta (Palm Springs) and Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Resort (perhaps to test the air quality in another state’s four-star resorts?).
The department also pays well to make sure it is heard in Sacramento. According to the California Secretary of State’s office, the SQAMD spent more than $590,000 in lobbying expenses during the 2003-04 legislative session.
Call it protection money. The SCAQMD wants to make sure that its funding remains secure (state and federal grants make up about 10% of its budget), and that no impish lawmakers under the Capitol dome dare pass new measures limiting the department’s authority.
Clearly, this is an agency that needs to be reined in. And it begs a larger question: How should the Golden State clean up its act as it pertains to environmental regulatory swagger?
First, if California politics is a jungle, then the state’s policymakers need to revisit the law of the jungle. That means the California Air Resources Board flexing its muscle and telling the SCAQMD and other lesser meddling agencies to butt out of its business.
Second, it’s time that California’s lawmakers grew up. There is a role for regional agencies like the SCAQMD to play, helping the state develop new policies based on good science, not bad tempers.
Finally, citizens themselves have to become better engaged — always a challenge in attention-distracted California. When agencies overreach and, ironically, fail to protect the public’s interest, the public should react by punishing the offending officials. Smart government is a byproduct of smarter voters.
This latest environmental flap comes at an interesting juncture in the history of California’s politics.
A special election takes place today — a test between the Governor and Legislature as to who’s more in touch with voters. Meanwhile, there’s another contest: Can different levels of government work in tandem? Or will their competing egos stand in the way of the nation-state establishing a better quality of life?
For years, government environmental agencies have convinced us that the polluters are the bad guys. But as SCAQMD’s bad behavior shows, it’s more complicated than that. Green entities that are also green with envy sometimes can be just as destructive. That’s something to remember the next time you see an agency like the SCAQMD in action.
Pogo had it right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.
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