Three big ideas to emerge from the California Economic Summit

150 150 Justin Ewers

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom delivered the keynote speech at the Summit. (Photo Credit: Violeta Vaqueiro)

It was not the beginning of the end or even the end of the beginning. No, last week’s 2013 California Economic Summit in Los Angeles—which brought together more than 450 business, labor, government, and nonprofit leaders from across the state to champion an integrated economic vitality strategy for California—seemed more like the long, hopeful stretch in the middle of an ambitious journey.

Where that journey should take California—and how regional leaders can work together to make sure all of the state’s diverse regional economies reach their destination—has been the Summit’s purpose over the last year. And while last week’s rich discussion in Los Angeles underscored just how vital that role is—with participants making 572 individual commitments to take specific action to support the Summit’s seven-point plan—the Summit itself, by design, was meant to be only a brief stop on the state’s road to prosperity.

“A meeting is not a result,” as Jim Earp, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs, put it, encouraging the unique gathering of business, labor, and environmental leaders to build a coalition that can push the state to adopt the Summit’s triple-bottom-line proposals.

Three ideas that will drive the Summit forward

The opportunity before the state’s regions to do just that was made increasingly clear in Los Angeles—with three key themes emerging that will inform the 2013 Summit’s next move from strategy to action:

1. The value of a new kind of coalition:

The Summit’s emphasis on economic growth that supports the triple bottom line isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics. “Diverse interests are the best way to push back on special interests,” Ashley Boren, one of the Summit’s co-chairs and the executive director of Sustainable Conservation, said on a panel highlighting the potential of a coalition that can find common ground between business, labor, and environmental groups.

Few state lawmakers can make this case better than Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the Senate President Pro Tem, who shared his own successes passing major state legislation by working across interest groups. “The triple bottom line is absolutely the right approach,” Steinberg said, describing his efforts to bring together the “impossible coalition” that supported the passage of SB 375—a law that “combines climate change, transportation, housing, and land-use in a way that incentivizes regions to not only think collaboratively, but to act collaboratively.”

After spending much of last year trying to drive more “smart growth” by updating the California Environmental Quality Act, Steinberg noted that his next priority is workforce development, one of the Summit’s seven initiatives for next year. “I want to look at the connections between education and the modern economy and linking them in a more profound way,” Steinberg said. “Partisans have taken over our education system. To expand workforce development and public education, we have to think differently.”

2. The political opportunity:

With more than a dozen cabinet secretaries and state lawmakers in attendance—along with several dozen local elected officials from across the state—the Summit is proving to be a forum not just for business and nonprofit leaders, but for bringing together the right people with the right ideas. The Summit’s seven action plans offer detailed policy prescriptions for taking on some of the state’s economic challenges, but just as important as the proposals themselves is the opportunity to create the political will to make them a reality.

“It’s not always original ideas [that are necessary to solve the state’s problems],” said Kish Rajan, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Business & Economic Development. “It’s knowing when an idea’s time has come and then bringing together the leadership to get it done.”

As honorary Summit co-chairs George Shultz and Leon Panetta said last week in an open letter endorsing the Summit’s efforts, this is the very opportunity the Summit provides: “We believe this profoundly new approach, giving Californians a way to cure California’s ills, is the best way to accelerate the economic recovery—and the only way to provide enduring stewardship of the state’s diverse communities and its unrivalled natural resources.”

3. Creativity in policymaking:

With the economy beginning to recover in many regions (though not all of them, a theme of this year’s Summit) and with the approval of a major new state tax measure last year, it seems likely that taxes may not be going up anytime soon. “I think we’re at a tax ceiling in California,” Treasurer Bill Lockyer said during a Summit panel highlighting the challenges the state will face as it tries to make investments in infrastructure, in particular, with scarce public resources. “I don’t think there’s a lot of new money there. That means there’s either going to be a lot of cannibalization of each other’s pots or prioritization that needs to get made.”

Part of the solution, Lockyer said, will involve finding creative ways to support the state’s top priorities—from the basics of paving roads and building affordable housing to encouraging the growth of a new wave of manufacturing jobs in California.

The Summit’s Policy Playbook collects some of the best thinking from across the state’s regions about how to do just that—offering something entirely new to California, a regionally-driven statewide economic plan.

“The idea that someone in Sacramento is going to come down and announce our economic strategy is preposterous. There is no white horse coming to save the day,” Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom said last week. “This is economic policy developed and informed at the local level. It’s regions rising together.”

And it’s a strategy, now moving toward implementation, that can be found only through the California Economic Summit.


Justin Ewers

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