Jerry Brown is fond of citing "subsidiarity" as a guiding principle of his governorship – a $5 word roughly meaning local control is usually the best public policy.
Brown has used the principle to justify two pet policies – a realignment that diverts low-threat felons into local jails and supervision, rather than state prison, and the reconfiguration of school funds to do away with many earmarked aid categories and give more money to districts with high levels of poor and "English learner" students.
He's also used it, occasionally, to reject legislation as being overly intrusive on local governments.
Last year, for instance, he used it to veto legislation, backed by unions and aimed at stunting Wal-Mart's expansion, that would have required economic impact reports for proposed big-box grocery stores.
"While I recognize that the merits of large-scale projects need to be carefully considered, plenty of laws are already on the books that enable and in some cases require cities and counties to carefully assess whether these projects are in a community's best interests," Brown said. "This bill would add yet another layer of review to an already cumbersome process."
There was a certain irony in Brown's veto because he had, as attorney general, threatened to sue local governments that didn't adhere to his vision of higher density, transit-friendly housing.
Brown may get other opportunities to uphold "subsidiarity" this year as bills move to his desk for signature or veto.
For one thing, the Assembly has passed a new version of the Wal-Mart bill Brown vetoed last year, and Assembly Bill 667 is likely to land on his desk again.
For another, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, once again on behalf of unions, is carrying a measure, Senate Bill 7, aimed at forcing charter cities – those that have their own independent governing structures – to require public works contractors to pay "prevailing wages" on construction projects.
When the city of Vista opted not to require prevailing wages – basically the same as union contract wages – on the construction of two city fire stations, unions sued but the state Supreme Court ruled that since Vista was spending its own money, without state funds, on the project it had the right as a charter city to not require payment of prevailing wages.
SB 7 could not directly overturn that decision, which was based on the state constitution's recognition of charter cities' rights, but if enacted it would indirectly do so by penalizing any charter city that shunned prevailing wages by denying it state funds for any project.
City officials see it – accurately – as an intrusion on their constitutional right to conduct city business as they see fit. And if SB 7 reaches his desk, Brown's allegiance to subsidiarity will be tested again.