As it turns out, the comment made during last month's court hearing by the attorney representing the state. "The redevelopment agencies took a gamble on this lawsuit," said deputy state attorney Ross Moody.
And it's a gamble they lost.
Today's action may be the final chapter in one of 2011's most contentious budget fights, a fight that began with Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to abolish redevelopment agencies and divert the freed up cash to other state budget-busting needs.
That fight led to a compromise plan, albeit one forced on redevelopment supporters: a bill to abolish redevelopment agencies (RDAs) as they now exist, ABx26, and another allowing RDAs to stay alive provided they shared future revenues, ABx27.
In a 7-0 ruling (PDF), the state's highest court upheld the legality of the first bill, ABx26. The opinion, written by Justice Kathryn Werdegar, says the Legislature had full authority to abolish the RDA system it wrote into state statute a generation ago.
"Redevelopment agencies are political subdivisions of the state and creatures of the Legislature’s exercise of its statutory power," writes Justice Werdegar. She also strikes down, in pointed language, the argument made by redevelopment supporters that 2010's Proposition 22 protected the existence of RDAs:
Had the voters in fact intended to amend the Constitution to fundamentally alter the relationship between the state and this class of political subdivision, we would, moreover, expect to find at least a single mention of such an intention in the various supporting and opposing [Prop 22] ballot arguments. Instead, we find silence.
Justice Werdegar also smacks down Prop 22's language that says the funding of redevelopment agencies -- the "tax increment" of new property taxes within a redevelopment district, calling it "a clear misstatement of the law as it stood prior to the passage of Proposition 22."
But the fatal blow is the other part of today's ruling: a finding that the second bill, ABx27, was illegal. And furthermore, a majority of the Court ruled that the two bills were -- contrary to the argument of RDA backers -- severable. And in nixing ABx27, the Court uses the language of Prop 22 and its intent to stop forced fiscal transfers from locally directed programs.
Here, though, there was dissent... and it's notable, coming from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. She writes in a long opinion that "the majority’s conclusion rests on an impermissibly broad reading of Proposition 22 plain language," and that the revenue sharing plan is legal.
Still, the net result, for now, is that redevelopment agencies in California are history.
If the numbers in the budget signed into law on June 30 by Brown pan out, today's blockbuster ruling is a windfall to the finances of state government. The budget assumed $1.7 billion from the enactment of ABx26 and a $400 million a year boost in the future from ABx27. But the budget help in future years assumed a substantial portion of property tax dollars earmarked for RDAs would remain as such.
The Supreme Court's striking down of the RDA compromise means that the local agencies are fully dissolved -- and that some $700 million in local property tax dollars will revert to their otherwise earmarked uses, namely local government and local schools.
And that frees up state budget dollars that would have otherwise subsidized those local services. In other words, instead of $400 million in annual help to the state budget, the year after year boost would now be $1.1 billion. Hence, today's action on paper is a partial defeat for state officials, but in reality it's a fiscal windfall.
What happens next remains the real question. Redevelopment supporters, in their early spin on the ruling, said they will ask the Legislature to step in and find a new way for RDAs to survive. They point to the fact that several legislators, mostly moderate Democrats, seemed to vote for the ABx26 redevelopment elimination only because it was supposedly joined at the hip to the ABx27 alternative existence.
That issue was touched on by the Court ruling. "The issue," they wrote, "is whether a legislative body, knowing that only part of its enactment would be valid, would have preferred that part to nothing."
But even if redevelopment backers can gather some legislative steam to save them from eradication, it's important to note that their negotiating power seems pretty small. After all, inaction at this point by the Legislature means more fiscal relief for other state programs that Democrats ostensibly care about.
Update 2:40 p.m. The early reaction has produced few surprises. It also points out the complexity of the road ahead. Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California cities and the architect of Prop 22, is predictably unhappy with the ruling that deals a one-two punch to a economic tool used mainly by cities. But he also points out that the ruling does nothing to define exactly what debts incurred by RDAs will -- or won't -- be paid before property taxes are put back into the local till. McKenzie also predicts a lot of lawsuits over that very same issue. "I think we may be looking at years of ongoing conflict over this," he said in a phone interview.
Which is why RDA supporters are already urging the Legislature to come to their rescue and find a new, constitutional way of keep redevelopment alive. The question, though, may be what legislative leaders are willing to do. The leaders of both houses issued statements this afternoon pledging to address the issues of "economic development" and affordable housing. But that's not the same thing as extending the life of the RDA system, one which has been used (and criticized) for projects that didn't universally qualify as economic stimuli.
And even so, the issue now may have to get in line with all of the other worthy goals of a state with more wishes than dollars. As Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg put it in his statement: "The [court] decision gives us a chance to work with our partners at the local level to make [economic development] happen in a way that allows us to balance all of the priorities of the people we represent."