10:35 PM PDT on Saturday, July 23, 2011

By JIM MILLER, BEN GOAD and DUG BEGLEY
The Press-Enterprise

Making public policy often produces its share of winners and losers, but Inland Southern California has had a decidedly bad run of luck the last few weeks.

From Washington, the region learned that it had been passed over for a $446 million federal loan to help pay to widen Highway 91 through Corona.

From Sacramento, the new state budget deal empties a special pot of funding for four new Riverside County cities; includes a $150 firefighting fee that lands hard on the Inland area; and, frustrating local boosters to no end, lacks $15 million needed to open the UC Riverside school of medicine next year.

The failures lack a single root cause. The poor economy, complex funding formulas and partisan budget politics are only part of the mix. And the region also has had its recent public-policy wins, such as large allocations of school and transportation bond dollars.

But for local officials, the recent weeks sting.

“These are the toughest times I have seen for people who are struggling and also for governments responsible for delivering those services,” said Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, a former state lawmaker. “Victories were a whole lot easier to come by in that environment when the economy was good. I think everybody was winning.”

But Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge noted that mostly Republicans represent the region while Democrats control the state Capitol and White House.

“We clearly are at a disadvantage in the state Legislature and the governor’s office because we’re a red place rather than a blue place,” Loveridge said.

Kevin Wolf, president of Germania Corp., a local development and consulting company, agreed that politics plays a role in how the region secures state and federal funds.

“We are dealing with a broken political system right now that even our friends in Sacramento and Washington who want to help us, can’t,” Wolf said, noting that tight budgets and tense politicking have made it harder to get funding.

STATE BUDGET

In June, UC and local officials made an all-out push to get $15 million for the medical school into the state budget.

State Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, led local lawmakers’ efforts to get the money. The push, however, came amid a partisan fight over Republicans’ refusal to support tax extensions that were part of the 2009 budget package.

The approved budget lacked the medical-school money. Loveridge called the outcome “exceptionally disappointing.”

The $86 billion general fund budget deal also diverts revenue from vehicle-license fees to help pay for local public safety grants. Every city in the state loses money in the shift.

But the hit is particularly hard for California’s newest cities, all of which are in Riverside County: Eastvale, Jurupa Valley, Menifee and Wildomar.

Those cities will lose an estimated $14 million in 2011-12, in some cases more than a third of their general fund. Officials have said the shift will force layoffs, insolvency or disincorporation.

Democrats said they were forced to take the license fee money to maintain the public-safety grants, which are very popular with law enforcement.

Underlying the situation, however, is that all four of the cities are in districts represented by Republicans. Responding to complaints about the cut, Brown spokesman Gil Duran criticized GOP lawmakers’ refusal to support the tax extensions.

“The people of western Riverside County can thank this particular group of legislators for their predicament,” he said, referring to GOP lawmakers who were vocal in opposing the budget plan.

Benoit called the statement “inappropriate.” Some Inland lawmakers accused Democrats of targeting the cut at the cities. Brown denied that.

Within days, the four cities hired a Sacramento lobbyist to help pass legislation to restore the money.

The budget also will prove costly for people living in the 31 million acres of California where the state has the main firefighting responsibility.

Brown signed legislation imposing a $150 per structure fee on the more than 800,000 structures in the responsibility areas. The fee, a longtime recommendation of the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst, would raise up to $200 million annually, freeing up general-fund dollars for other programs.

Only about 1 million acres of state-responsibility land are in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. But the two counties are home to at least 100,000 structures — one-eighth of the statewide total — that could be charged the fee, according to census and Cal Fire data.

Republican critics call the fee an illegal tax. Many people in those areas, they say, already pay local agencies for fire protection. Some groups have talked of suing to block the fee, and a state senator has filed paperwork to ask voters to overturn it.

HIGHWAY 91

Bipartisanship, however, is alive and well when it comes to the $1.3 billion plan to widen Highway 91 through Corona.

The region’s congressional delegation pushed hard for a $446 million federal loan to get the project started, only to see the application denied earlier this month.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was among those who expressed disappointment over the decision. She said the project is vital to ease congestion and unclog the flow of goods from the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach to the rest of the nation.

Feinstein said the region’s inability to secure the loan via the Transportation Infrastructure Financing Innovation Act program this time around was not the fault of the Inland area’s government and transportation agencies.

“Local officials, particularly on Highway 91, have been very good — worked very hard,” Feinstein said. “Riverside has a great group of people who really care.”

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