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Non-essential legislation during a pandemic violates our public participation rights

While California is just beginning to deal with the Covid-19 virus pandemic, the biggest healthcare crisis in our history, many politicians seem to exist in a parallel universe. They seem to think that they are doing their job by sending out email blasts with pictures of their smiling faces parroting CDC pronouncements.

Meanwhile, heartless state senators, representatives, and well-financed YIMBY operatives are looking at the tsunami of pain and suffering we are witnessing as just another “opportunity” to promote their extremist, legislative agenda that wrests control of planning and zoning away from local governments. But this time, the consequences for us all are likely to be much worse.

We cannot allow predatory, unconscionable political maneuvering

We have a protected legal right to engage in robust public participation in our political process. But how can we exercise that right when all public gatherings are forbidden, when all public hearings are closed, when even face to face conversations are verboten? The well-intended but meager attempts by local and state government to videotape their meetings and use social media to interact with the public are absurdly inadequate to replace a fully attended public process, while the entire state’s population is under mandatory “shelter in place” order, schools are closed, most businesses are closed, and most people cannot go to work.

Right now, people are desperately worried about their children, their families, their finances, their jobs, about having food to eat… about their lives! The furthest thing on anyone’s mind right now is what some loose-cannon legislator is trying to slip through in Sacramento.

This is why we must immediately contact our local and state elected representatives and demand that all non-essential legislation and deliberations be postponed until 30 days after the statewide “Shelter in place” order has been lifted.

"Non-essential" is defined as anything not directly related to the health, safety, and well-being of the public: healthcare, food, homelessness, personal and business support, etc.

The heartless Wiener bandwagon rolls on

A case in point is San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener, who is intentionally exploiting the pandemic chaos to, yet again, promote his community-destroying legislation to make way for virtually unlimited, high density development and massive numbers of luxury housing units across the state. His latest proposal is Senate Bill 902 and his Sacramento allies are piling on with their own holdover housing bills such as AB 725 (Buffy, Wicks, Wiener) and AB 1279 (Bloom).

As always, these bills are enthusiastically supported my Marin County state representative Marc Levine and state senator Mike McGuire. Yet, none of this legislation ensures any amount of affordable housing for those most in need.

These new laws continue to strip local government of all zoning control and legislate massive, high density development in single-family zoned neighborhoods, by right. They create nonsensical, politically-motivated zoning designations such as “jobs rich areas” (big corporate interests) and “high resource areas” (wealthy residents and other business interests).

Worst of all, these proposals continue to dramatically shift the liabilities and financial responsibilities to provide public services, schools, and infrastructure to support their hyper-development visions, onto the backs of small local governments and already tax overburdened residents.

This was bad enough when the economy was humming along and local coffers were being filled with sales taxes and rising property taxes (though the tax revolt evidenced in our recent March elections in Marin County showed that was already coming to an end). But now, with each passing day of the dramatic shutdown of our $22 trillion per year national economy, that revenue is rapidly disappearing.

While Senator Wiener and his self-interested financial supporters try to take advantage of the moment, people are dying and the body count is just beginning. This is particularly true for the elderly, whom Wiener and YIMBYs have shamelessly blamed for the housing “crisis.” Apparently, Scott Wiener could care less.

We are ill-prepared for what might be coming

The gross failings of our federal government at the top and the inadequacy of our healthcare response/resources system is well-documented on the evening news. Meanwhile, the general public is caught like deer in the headlights, in the face of the deluge of bad news that will be coming as the coronavirus eats its way through the northern hemisphere then the southern hemisphere, disrupting everything in its path: farming, resources extraction, manufacturing, transportation, supply chains, corporate fortunes, banking, and possibly even the solvency of many marginally stable countries around the world.

All of this will have real impact, direct and indirect, on local employment and wages and benefits. And all of this is coming at the worst possible time, when the biggest pension funds are woefully underfunded and far behind their promised rates of return and payouts, and when defaults on credit cards, auto loans, and other credit were already rising, and the corporate bond market, which dwarfs the valuation of the stock market, is now in a free-fall of insolvency.

Will we get through this? Of course, yes. What will it look like on the other side? No one knows.

What we do know is that the state’s shelter in place directive will not be over by Easter. Maybe Memorial Day? No one knows. The societal adjustments we’re witnessing may be with us for years unless an effective vaccine is found soon.

As things are, the stock market (and all those IRAs and 401ks) may have little chance of a sustainable rebound soon because of the massive debt and default overhang that may continue to haunt it. Or the government will become the investor of last resort, making everything financial even more dependent on the market's survival than it already was when all this began. Either way, the federal government will likely have spent / injected / backstopped $8 to $10 trillion to save our financial system before this is over, and we should be grateful if that turns out to be enough.

So then where will the funding come from to pay for universal healthcare, a green new deal, and affordable housing? A lot of unanswerable questions.

It is likely that tens of thousands of jobs in California and millions in the country will vanish and a significant percentage will never come back. Thousands of small businesses are going to be closing their doors, for good. Central bank interest rates will remain at zero for years and savers will be decimated even as people will save more, out of fear.

If personal and business bankruptcies surge in the coming months, it could set off a chain reaction of unpaid debt on a scale that could make the much touted, federal $2 trillion stimulus package and it's $1,200 a month payouts look like a drop in the bucket. And if the California Rule holds on, it may drag the state down in the pension fund collapse that’s coming.

On the home front

The bottom line is that many small cities and counties, who rely heavily on revenues from sales taxes and local bond measures, may not survive prolonged financial carnage. If this pandemic keeps up at anywhere near the pace we’re seeing around the world, look for insolvency to be coming to a city council meeting near you.

All things considered, this is not a time to be screwing around with cleverly worded “housing” legislation in Sacramento, to help major corporations off-load the financial impacts of their voracious, tax-subsidized growth onto our already over-burdened local government and the public.

Please immediately contact your local and state elected representatives and demand that all non-essential legislation and deliberations be postponed until 30 days after the statewide “Shelter in place” order has been lifted.

We deserve a fully functioning, open, and transparent public process.

Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of Marin residents.