Following an election that saw Democrats accrue historic supermajorities in both houses of the California Legislature, lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown will have to decide how to wield their newfound clout next year.
The new majorities may seem like an opportunity for local government officials to sidle up to Democratic state legislators to advocate their causes before the legislative session begins in earnest in early January, but Napa County officials likely won’t be among them.
On two of its highest-priority issues for lobbying next year — housing policy and Napa State Hospital — the county is turning to Brown’s administration for the fixes it seeks, said Larry Florin, the director of the county’s Housing and Intergovernmental Affairs Department.
The county unveiled its legislative platform for 2013 last week in draft form, and it could be revised before it goes to the Napa County Board of Supervisors for adoption in January.
This marks a new approach for the county, which had housing and Napa State at the top of its lobbying agenda during the last legislative session. The county backed two bills on housing from former Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, but both died during the last session.
While unsuccessful, county officials credited the work on the bills with getting their voice on housing law heard in Brown’s administration, particularly in the Department of Housing and Community Development.
That department has a new director, and Florin said the county’s had representatives at a working group convened to discuss potential changes to the state’s housing element laws.
The county’s priority is to get recognition for its housing efforts, namely funding affordable housing projects in the cities, in its housing element and in meeting its regional housing needs allocations.
The state declined to certify the county’s most recent housing element, in 2009, which prompted a lawsuit from a local affordable-housing advocacy group.
After last year’s lobbying of the Legislature failed to change housing law, Florin said the administrative process might bear more fruit for the county.
“We want to give it a shot,” Florin said. “There’s been a willingness on the part of the administration to at least engage.”
Julie Snyder, policy director for Housing California, a housing-advocacy group, worked with Napa County on one of Allen’s bills, which would have made it easier for the county to get its housing element certified in the future while avoiding higher-density development in the unincorporated area.
She said that while the county was able to reach a compromise with other affordable-housing groups on the bill, it was scuttled because other jurisdictions in California balked at the proposed language, arguing it was too restrictive.
Snyder said Napa’s decision to pursue an administrative fix is “the best news I’ve heard all day,” because it means not having to rehash the debates if the county pursued a new bill.
California housing law allows cities and counties to use default densities of 10 to 30 units per acre in their housing elements, which is high by county standards. Napa sought a legislative fix to have an alternative to that density if it could show it’s still providing for affordable housing.
That suited Napa, but was tough to sell to other jurisdictions that also would be affected, Snyder said.
“It doesn’t seem like we necessarily got very far,” she said. “There’s so many different circumstances we see statewide. Local governments don’t like having people look over their shoulder as they make land-use decisions. These nuances are much more effectively dealt with at the agency level.”
The county is also applying this tactic as it deals with impacts of Napa State Hospital, primarily the cost and safety of housing patients who commit crimes at the hospital in the Napa County jail.
The issue is mainly funding, as the county has to pay to house these patients at the jail. Florin said the county is working with the Department of State Hospitals on this.
“There’s an impact on us,” Florin said. “We’re a small county jail.”
Florin said the county may seek to introduce legislation if its administrative efforts fail.