SB 7 subverts charter cities’ autonomy

June 19, 2013

By Katy Grimes


While reports of an improving California economy abound, many in the state aren’t buying it — particularly given how many anti-business bills are working through the Legislature.

Of particular interest is Senate Bill 7, by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres. SB 7 would deprive charter cities of state funding and financial assistance for projects simply because some city charters do not require paying the prevailing wage.

The bill is sponsored by the State Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO.

“Continuing California’s economic growth depends on creating more middle class jobs, especially in the construction industry that was hit so hard during the Great Recession,” said Steinberg on his website. “Low wage contractors cut costs by cutting corners, but the data shows that they’re not saving public money. We can’t afford to shortchange workers and taxpayers by ignoring the economic net benefit of California’s prevailing wage law.”

What does SB 7 do?

SB 7 seeks to compel charter cities to require prevailing wages on local projects they construct with local funds by withholding all state contracting funds from non-compliant cities. The result could mean that local governments simply forgo important infrastructure projects because they cannot afford to fund them.


SB 7, however, is arguably unconstitutional. In 2012, the California Supreme court confirmed, in State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, AFL-CIO vs. City of Vista, that California charter cities would be able to maintain the autonomy to decide whether to pay prevailing wages for local construction projects. It was a step in the direction of the free market for local governments, as I wrote last September in “Push for charter cities enrages unions.”

“Whether a charter city pays prevailing wage with local funds is up to each city and not the Legislature,” said Russell Johnson, Associated Building and Contractors, Inc., California Government Affairs Director. “In this decision the court said, ‘Autonomy with regard to the expenditure of public funds lies at the heart of what it means to be an independent governmental entity.’ We can think of nothing that is of greater municipal concern than how a city’s tax dollars will be spent; nor anything which could be of less interest to taxpayers of other jurisdictions.”

According to Johnson, the ruling means charter cities now have a clear path to continue to operate as they see fit.

What is a California charter city?

In California, charter cities are under a unique protection in the State Constitution, and are allowed autonomy from the state when it comes to “municipal affairs.” This means when local dollars are used, charter cities get to make local decisions.

“In the Vista case, the California Supreme Court unambiguously upheld the right of charter cities to establish their own contracting policies for public works projects paid for with local funds,” Russell explained. “Local projects built with local funds are not subject to prevailing wage.”

The bill

Passage of SB 7 would establish a disturbing road map for future state intrusion on charter city laws and policies by withholding state funds as leverage to attempt to force changes to voter-approved city charters and ordinances.

“Cities recognize that exercising the power of a charter can free their municipal affairs from the grip of the state legislature and the special interest groups entrenched at the capitol,” Kevin Dayton, CEO of Dayton Public Policy Institute, said in a recent op ed on

Dayton wrote:

“A staff report about city charters to the Murrieta City Council for its October 2, 2012 meeting was blunt about the need for cities to enact charters:

“‘…a knowledgeable, involved electorate should both propel and constrain the direction of its own city. Local control has always been a paramount matter of residents, businesses and the Murrieta City Council. Yet state legislators and previous gubernatorial administrations continue to impose far greater mandates, while at the same time hindering the ability of local governments to operate successfully. With little ability to protest, local governments have watched as the state government continues to balance its budget deficits on the backs of fiscally responsible local jurisdictions…The voice of cities in Sacramento has become mute due to a combination of special interest groups, influential political campaign contributions and tone-deaf lawmakers passing unfunded mandates. This process has left cities with little ability to petition the state government…’”

Of the 482 cities in California, 121 are charter cities; the rest are “general law cities” over which the Legislature exercises more control. But not all charter cities avail themselves of the prevailing wage exemption. There are currently 70 cities with no exemption, 10 cities with a partial exemption, and 41 charter cities with full exemption, according to the California Construction Compliance Group.

“But there are aggressive opponents who regard cities’ exercise of their charter authority to be an attack on their hegemony,” Dayton said. “In 2011 and 2012, unions spent jaw-dropping amounts per voter on campaigns to convince voters to reject reasonable proposed charters.”

Charter cities and Project Labor Agreements

This isn’t the first time unions have been at the dance to crush charter city authority. The unions backed SB 922 in 2011 and SB 829 in 2012, both by former state Sen. Michael Rubio. These two laws cut off state money to charter cities that adopt policies prohibiting those cities from requiring construction contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions as a condition of work. Both bills were signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“SB 7 just adopts the same concept of overpowering charter city authority,” Dayton said.

Dayton anticipates the Democratic legislative supermajority and Brown, also a Democrat, will advance even more union-backed efforts to chip away at Article XI, Section 3 of the California Constitution, which allows cities to govern their own municipal affairs under a charter.

Dayton said, “It would be an effective way to eliminate another one of the diminishing number of checks and balances that interfere with utopian schemes planned under the benevolent and enlightened one-party state.”

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