Voters should rightly expect that Gov. Jerry Brown be reasonably consistent with his bill signings and his dealings with the federal government. A big test of that consistency involves a lawsuit the governor filed last week and Senate Bill 7, which is now on his desk.
With the lawsuit, the governor seeks to prevent the federal government from imposing costly, unreasonable and unconstitutional demands on the state. Senate Bill 7, should it become law, would permit the state to impose costly, unreasonable and unconstitutional demands on charter cities.
The governor should vigorously pursue his lawsuit against the federal government, and he should veto SB 7.
With the lawsuit, Brown seeks to prevent the federal government from withholding transportation grants unless the state agrees to exempt transit workers from pension reforms enacted last year. The federal government claims that state pension law violates transit workers’ collective bargaining rights. Gov. Brown denies that assertion and argues correctly that the federal government’s actions are both coercive and unconstitutional.
The federal government is withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation grants that have nothing whatever to do with transit workers’ collective bargaining rights. As the lawsuit states, by withholding the funds, the Labor Department undermines “the independent fiscal and legislative sovereignty of California.”
For the same reason Brown is right to pursue his lawsuit against the U.S. Labor Department, he is obligated to veto SB 7. Authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the bill seeks to withhold state funds from any charter city that fails to comply with the state’s prevailing-wage laws when using city funds alone to pay for public works projects.
The Steinberg measure would deny all state construction funding – including state bond money, loans or grants – to any city whose voters approved charter provisions that exempt contractors from paying prevailing wages for locally funded projects.
Of California’s 120 charter cities, 51 have approved such provisions. The bill would punish those cities and its residents for exercising their constitutional rights to use city money in ways they choose.
Under the bill, even municipal projects funded with state or federal money that comply with state prevailing-wage laws would be denied state funding. Like the Labor Department’s threat to withhold federal transportation grants, SB 7 attacks both the independence of charter cities and their ability to operate in a fiscally responsible manner. Because California defines prevailing wages as the most frequently occurring wage, which is nearly always the union wage rate, it ends up being the highest pay rate in a jurisdiction. In many areas of the state, particularly the economically depressed Central Valley, that unique definition boosts the cost of public works by 15 to 20 percent.
The Legislature approved pension reform last year to protect the state and local government budgets. In recent years, sharply rising pension costs have been a big part of the reason the state had to impose furloughs and hiring freezes and local governments laid off workers, closed libraries and reduced maintenance of streets and parks.
Charter cities that use their own money for public works, and choose to pay less than the state-defined prevailing wage, are trying to stretch limited local dollars. They should have that right, just as the state should have the right to enact pension reform.
To protect the sovereignty of the state and save money, Gov. Brown should pursue his lawsuit against the federal government. To protect the independence of charter cities and save money, the governor should veto SB 7.