Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lawmakers to governor: Sell unneeded land, not lottery

By Steve Geissinger

SACRAMENTO — Lawmakers of both parties moved Tuesday toward making sale of unneeded state properties — not the lottery — a way to ease painful cuts in services as a result of next year's huge budget deficit.

After MediaNews reports on unsold surplus property and a little-known University of California research station on a tropical island, senators held a special hearing and directed the state auditor to obtain updated land inventories — not only unused, but also underused and "exotic" holdings.

The Senate Governmental Organization Committee said it wants to rapidly obtain the information, then report back to the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the upper house for budget strategy purposes.

Though Democrats hold the majority in the Legislature, minority Republicans can delay approval of a spending plan because of the two-thirds vote requirement.

GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to unveil a revised plan today for dealing with a deficit that has grown to as much as $20 billion. The governor is expected to incorporate leasing of the state-run lottery to blunt what will still likely be broad, deep cuts in government.

Sen. Dean Florez, a Fresno-area Democrat who heads the Senate government committee, said he would rather "sell our surplus property, before we sell or lease the lottery."

"We are going to be looking at every single asset and Advertisementasking the question of whether there is any longer a use for these properties," said Florez.

Republican Sen. Jeff Denham, of Merced, said that "we want to see what can be sold to deal with this year's budget crisis," as well as those of any future years.

Denham said lawmakers are seeking "realistic numbers" and values on property tallies since "we're under a short time frame, where some quick decisions need to be made."

"We're going to be asked by our caucuses on this issue," he said.

Four years ago, the Schwarzenegger administration estimated the state held more than $5 billion in surplus properties but suffered from a disposal system that had long been dysfunctional.

On Tuesday, lawmakers said they want to remove one of the hitches — controversy over environmental assessments of property transfers.

California's holdings include 22,000 structures and enough parcels that, together, they would be more than double the size of Los Angeles County, according to the latest documents available.

Nevertheless, at the hearing, reports of efficient land disposal came from the Department of General Services, which plays a major role in the sale of property that's declared surplus; and Caltrans, which acquires land in order to make way for planned roads that are sometimes never built.

But Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Escondido, said he has observed that the many departments in state government lack incentive to dispose of surplus land because proceeds aren't channeled back to them.

Sen. Tom Harmon, R-Orange, said he has seen the state retain land even though its value has climbed and its use has declined.

But lawmakers said they are ready to get tough with departments, slashing even more than proposed amounts, then letting officials fill in the revenue gap with land-sale proceeds. Currently, proceeds must go to pay off deficit bonds.

Legislators said that, in essence, they want to force departments to justify retaining land.

Lawmakers also questioned UC officials about the Gump research station they have developed on a donated parcel on Moorea Island, near Tahiti, in the South Pacific. Republican lawmakers and taxpayer groups have criticized it as a luxury the state can't afford.

University officials said one of the major factors in selling such a parcel is fear of discouraging other potential land donors, who would figure their gift would just be transformed into cash.

Before the surplus-land hearing, the committee approved SB1527 by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, which would allow the state to sell a 13-acre overflow parking lot with in the state-owned Cow Palace grounds to Daly City.

The city plans to use it for a grocery store, bank, post office and elementary school.

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