The Public Policy

Anyone in Charge?

In California, everyone thinks he is, particularly if the agency he represents has "air quality management" in its name.

By 11.7.05

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To know California is to appreciate her identity crisis: Is she more a nation, a state, or some entity in between?

It should come as no surprise, then, that California's policymakers likewise find themselves in conflict -- with each other.

Take the example of education. Is it the domain of the Governor and his administration, or the State Legislature, or the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or citizens participating in the initiative process on matters like vouchers and mandated school funding?

As for initiatives, who has the final say -- voters, or the men and women they elect to office? Five years ago, here in California, the public voted to limit marital status to heterosexual couples only. But that didn't stop the Legislature from recently trying to legally sanction same-sex marriages.

Unfortunately, California's environmental policy falls into the same morass. Where there should be order and an organized line of authority from the state to local level, competing agencies instead do their best Alexander Haig imitation ("I'm in charge"). In this case, one of the worst offenders happens to be the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), which encompasses the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino.

At issue is a recent memorandum of understanding between the California Air Resources Board -- an important state agency -- and the Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway to reduce diesel emissions in and around the state's rail yards. It's actually the second such agreement of this type.

A previous accord inked seven years ago called for a 67% reduction in locomotive nitrous-oxide emissions that contribute to the formation of ozone (this year's agreement could potentially reduce particulate emissions by 15-20% over the next three years).

Sounds like a win-win for the public, right? After all, this is government and the private sector working together for cleaner air.

Unfortunately, that's not the view shared by the good folks at the SCAQMD, who treated the environmental breakthrough with all the charm of a T-Rex with a toothache. Officials with the local agency claim the agreement "makes no sense."

At a recent public hearing, SCAQMD board member Dennis Yates, in a fit of pique, flung a set of documents to the ground, saying, "You can take this and do that with it as far as I'm concerned."

It's not the first time that SCAQMD has found itself in a curious position. A decade ago, for example, the agency took on smog in Southern California by championing a pair of programs: RECLAIM (which allowed utilities to trade sulfur-dioxide and nitrous-oxide credits) and the infamous Rule 1610 "Car Scrapping" program, which enabled operators of large stationary sources to opt out of Clean Air Act controls by paying owners of old, dirty cars to take them off the road.

Both programs were lemons. RECLAIM barely reduced pollution; the car-scrapping program led to widespread protests across Southern California.

Still, the urge to merge -- then derail -- the state's intentions continue. The childish theatrics notwithstanding, here's what the agency's temper tantrum demonstrates: in California, where a line supposedly is drawn between state and local authority, it's the smaller fish who think they rule the sea. In the case of railroads, federal and state governments have oversight, not a smaller entity like the SCAQMD.

But that doesn't stop the local agency from wanting to engage in the matter. Why? Part of the reason is hubris: in California, the sad legacy of excessive government is an instinct to over-regulate. And there's also a healthy dose of institutional bias.

For years, the SCAQMD has waged war on California's business community; thus the knee-jerk reflex when informed of a compact between state government and the private sector.

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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About the Author

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.