Recent decisions show it pays to lobby activist government 

There’s no official definition of liberal government, but a fair description would be the activist use of official powers to protect and enhance the public welfare, however that may be perceived.

The great political debates at all levels of government are over how deep that intrusion should be — such as the turmoil over whether the federal government should mandate purchase of health care insurance.

That philosophical debate aside, there is a darker side to liberal activist government.

Its regulation and taxation produce great financial impact, creating an incentive to reshape public policies for private gain.

Every new regulatory or taxation policy immediately spawns an array of financial stakeholders who then hire lobbyists and political consultants, distribute money to political policymakers, and seek self-serving applications of government power.

There may be a subsidy from a local government redevelopment agency, a tax loophole, a crackdown on a competitor, a change in regulatory boundaries, or monopoly licensing status, to name but a few examples.

And politicians like having the power to grant favors, even when it defies rationality.

The Capitol’s chief activity is, in fact, directly or indirectly taking money from someone and giving it to someone else. And one of its dirty little secrets is that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on lobbying and other tools of persuasion pale in comparison to the many billions of dollars that politicians can dispense.

The 2011 legislative session’s final days are, as usual, replete with efforts to gain such financial advantages.

Two years ago, the Legislature and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave a proposed professional football stadium in Industry, a gritty Los Angeles suburb, a blanket exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act’s requirements.

Now the developers of a rival stadium project in downtown Los Angeles are seeking special CEQA treatment — a speeded-up judicial review process.

The city of Industry will oppose the measure and may be joined by San Diego politicians who worry that their Chargers team will be lured to Los Angeles. It’s conceivable that Santa Clara may seek some CEQA relief for its proposed 49ers football stadium.

But that political maneuvering begs the question. If CEQA is a good law, it should be good for everyone, not just those who lack the political clout to gain some relief from its restrictions and requirements.

And if CEQA is too onerous, it should be changed, not merely riddled with special-interest loopholes.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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