What is more important, Legislative power or legislative courage?

T. Keith Gurnee


California’s legislature is returning to session on July 27 to consider nine housing bills that will forever change every city, county, town, village and neighborhood for the worse. The force behind these developer-backed bills is Senate Pro Tempore Toni Atkins (San Diego).

Never mind that these bills are an attempt to solve the wrong problem. After all, California doesn’t have a market-rate housing crisis, it has a housing affordability crisis. Yet driven by a false narrative, these bills will give market rate and luxury housing developers a green light to override local zoning and land use requirements while dramatically slashing the legislature’s commitment to affordable housing.

With Democrats controlling 2/3 of the Assembly and Senate, Atkins’ power is nearly absolute. After losing her battle over SB 50 in the Senate last January, she empaneled a special seven-member Senate committee (all Democrats) to write five of the nine harmful housing bills, all of which will be acted upon within the next 40 days.

Atkins even authored SB 1120, just one of the nine bills that deserve to be nixed. Co-authored by Sen. Scott Wiener, SB 1120 would ban single family zoning in California and make such neighborhoods targets for real estate investors like Blackstone to swoop in, buy up existing homes, split the properties into two lots as small as 1,200 square feet, then build two homes on each new lot for a total of four units on what was one lot. Then they can build up to two additional dwelling units on each new lot as allowed by local ordinances. That’s as many as eight units where one home once stood, all without yards, without affordability requirements, and without any parking if within one-half mile of a bus stop.

Senate Pro Tempore Atkins enjoys the significant powers to make all legislative committee assignments, to set staff budgets for every State Senator, and even to assign all office spaces to legislators. Any law makers who would dare go against her wishes would likely find themselves serving in unimportant committees and banished to the least desirable offices in Sacramento with their staff budgets reduced. Woe be it to any legislator who fails to support her agenda this time around.

Thus, in this atmosphere of fear, legislative courage has all but evaporated. A state senator inclined to oppose such bills recently confided to constituents that the threat of Atkins’ political reprisals was very real. Warned of such reprisals, that legislator is prepared to cave in to support bills that they would otherwise justly oppose.

It’s sad state of affairs. With public involvement and transparency missing in action in today’s legislative process due to the coronavirus, political courage also seems to be missing in action.

Nix the nine

Will any senators or assembly members dare have the bravery to oppose these nine nasty bills? Will senators like Steve Glazer, Anthony Portantino, Holly Mitchell and others rise to the occasion and demonstrate the courage they exhibited in defeating SB 50?

If they do so, it would embody the essence of true political courage. Let the courage of our legislators emerge–not to do business as usual–but to do what is right.

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