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Roger Ruvolo Is Wrong About the California Economic Summit

Key points:

  • The State of California lacks a coordinated policy framework to support and invest in California’s 15-18 economic regions. This is the main deliverable of this year’s California Economic Summit.
  • New York’s Regional Councils have proven effective over the past eight years at creating jobs and economic opportunity using a bottoms-up, regionally focused strategy. Let’s borrow a page from their playbook.
  • The Summit will be what we make of it. Let’s have the courage to set aside our differences and work together.

Last week the assistant editor for the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, CA, Roger Ruvolo, wrote an opinion piece called “How Coastal Elites Pat Inlanders On the Head.”  The timing coincides with this week’s California Economic Summit in Fresno. Governor Gavin Newsom is due to give a major economic address there. 

Mr. Ruvolo contends that central planners in Sacramento are bent on fixing one-size-fits-all policies firmly across the state – that the Economic Summit is political staging for already-existing projects like High Speed Rail “that misuses gas tax money.” What really ails Inlanders the most, says Ruvolo, is a local land use pattern that discourages dense downtown economic centers, which tend to spark new business connections and deal making, knowledge sharing and product innovations. Ruvolo implies the State is not helping Inlanders here, citing the work of economist Chris Thornberg.

Ruvolo’s message could easily be dismissed as just another political rant that is all heat and no light. Yet his core message is worth paying attention to for those who attend the Summit. After all, no one could be blamed for being a bit skeptical about a State that grinds on as economic conditions have worsened for one in six Californians; a State that has been known to be disinterested in practical policies that encourage business growth and job creation for all. Could this time be different?

After 10 years of working directly with State and local policy makers, and 20 years in the private and public sectors before that, I feel that this time is different.

California currently lacks a coordinated policy framework for investing in individual regions.

One size does not fit all. Policies that activate downtown LA cannot possibly be made to work in sparsely populated Markleeville in the remote Sierras. At 40 million people and 164,000 square miles, our State is simply too big and diverse for one-size-fits-all economic policies. I believe we all have learned this lesson the hard way – look at urban and rural poverty levels currently. Thankfully, the California Economic Summit and its leaders start with this basic understanding – it’s the bedrock upon which all other conversations are being advanced. Check out the newly released Summit 2019 Playbook to see for yourself.

The much harder job facing the Newsom Administration and lawmakers will be constructing a coordinated policy framework that respects and aligns with individual regions and their economic aspirations. Depending on how you count, there are 15-18 economic regions in the State, necessitating a framework that is adaptive and scalable. In past years the State had something close to this, and made strategic investments in our workforce system which we still benefit from, for example. But nothing like a comprehensive, regions first, bottoms-up policy framework exists today. Yet this is the primary deliverable at the 2019 Economic Summit – to leave with early agreement around a regionally-focused economic framework that is driven by local leaders and supported (vs. directed) by the State. The good news is that there is practical inspiration for how the State can do this at the level we need. Take New York State, for example. 

Ten years ago, New York was falling behind economically, poverty was rising, and the State invested little in high-growth innovation industries or supporting business start-ups. So in 2011, Governor Cuomo established 10 regional councils to develop long-term strategic plans for economic growth in their region. Each Council created their own economic playbook informed by data and evidence, built from the ground up by business, education, local government, and community-based organizations – not by central planners. The State provided regional actors parameters for performance, participation, and desired outcomes. New York’s Governor and Legislature, knowing that these job growth strategies came with local buy-in and a lot of consideration, then put the weight of the State government behind them. After seven annual rounds of funding, over $5.4 billion has been awarded in performance-based grants and tax credits to these 10 regions, plus targeted investments from aligned State programs. More than 220,000 jobs have been created or retained since the program launched. Future funding rounds are focused on unmanned systems and preparing people for the future of work.So it can be done: regional groups that represent broad-based economic, social, and environmental interests can work closely with State government to achieve measurable economic results that transform lives.

The 2019 Summit is the start to a regionally-focused framework for economic growth that is driven by local leaders with State support.

Here in Sacramento, we have a six-county-wide inclusive growth strategy that’s been in the works since the Brookings Institute provided us a wake-up call about several underlying weaknesses in our local economy. Our response was built with input from business, government, education, labor, and community-based groups and championed by Valley Vision, GSEC, SACOG, and the Metro Chamber. Core features include focusing on building a current and future workforce fluent in digital skills, placemaking investments like Aggie Square and the California Mobility Center, innovation centers that can generate thousands of new jobs, and ensuring job-creating mobility infrastructure investments to move people and goods around the urban core and beyond.

Our Regional Playbook will be unveiled at the Summit. And we aren’t alone. Riverside and Fresno, as well as coastal areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, LA, and San Diego are each advancing their own regional playbooks that leverage unique local assets and economic strengths. Now what we need in 2020 is a policy framework at the State level that can unleash each region’s economic potential, using locally-built economic strategies designed by people and groups who have a big stake in their success. Like New York, some State funding to back up these regional job strategies are high on the list for Sacramento and other regions. The pay off? Greater employment, more tax revenue, reduced social service needs, and an improved quality of life for all Californians.

This week’s Summit in Fresno will be what we make of it.  We can do the easy thing, like criticizing “coastal elites” and “central planners” who we judge don’t understand our communities. Or we can do the hard thing – that is, to summon the courage to use the Summit as a place where we all set aside our differences and find agreement to act boldly together on a bottom’s up, regionally-driven, inclusive growth strategy that fosters economic opportunity for all. The choice is ours.

Bill Mueller was Valley Vision’s Chief Executive through January 31st, 2020.