The Blog

Gray Davis Rolls the Dice

In desperate need of cash and political capital, California's governor prepares to give Native American tribes some extra-Constitutional powers.

12:00 AM, May 29, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

LAST FALL California Governor Gray Davis vetoed a bill the legislature had presented him--S.B. 1828. The bill would have transferred a large amount of authority over "sacred sites" to the California tribes. The definition of sacred site was broad; so too was the power that was to be transferred to Native American representatives. When the governor vetoed the bill, he proclaimed that it wasn't wise to place such enormous power in the hands of a single interest group.

The tribes have since regrouped and a new bill is moving through the legislature. If passed, it will cover every "site that is associated with the traditional beliefs, practices, lifeways, and ceremonial activities of a Native American tribe." Though dressed up in the dense language of land-use planning, the bill will empower the tribes with huge authority over private property. Consultation, avoidance, and mitigation will become watchwords in the land development process.

Davis is so weak politically that he will probably sign whatever bill makes it to his desk this time around, no matter how obviously unconstitutional. The tribes have huge resources, and they spend them freely. A recent example: A collection of tribes are proposing to build the closest casino to San Francisco and Oakland, and they have retained super lobbyist Darius Anderson and Doug Boxer--the son of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer--to shepherd the project. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that former Clinton flak Chris Lehane is also part of the selling team.

The effect of the new sacred sites bill will be to exacerbate an already extreme crisis in the California housing market. Any proposed home development with a "sacred site" near it will find itself bogged down in negotiations and whittled away by mitigations. Housing prices will have to carry another round of cost increases.

Those housing prices are already skyrocketing in California. Part of the price surge is interest-rate driven. Lower rates means buyers can afford more house. The Central Valley was long supposed to be the preserve of the affordable tract home, but last year the average price of a house in San Joaquin County hit $246,500--a more than 17 percent increase in a single year. There are simply not enough houses to go around in the Golden State.

But even though the sacred sites bill will further slow down the pace of housing construction and drive up the price of older homes, Davis will have to sign it. He launched an anti-recall effort this week, and that will cost a boatload of dough. The players with the biggest purses are the tribes. Davis needs their donations.

The new law should lead to a quick and successful lawsuit challenging it as an Establishment Clause violation, but the impact on projects in the pipeline will be immediate. A good governor would veto the bill again, both on constitutional grounds and as a matter of sound housing policy. But Gray Davis needs the cash. Consider the bill as good as signed.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.