08 July 2009

SB 43: Legislative flea flicker

A mini scandal is brewing in Santa Clara, where the 49ers stadium plan is getting help from State Senator Elaine Alquist (D - Santa Clara). She gutted an active, rather innocuous bill, SB 43, and replaced it with completely unrelated language geared specifically towards Santa Clara and how it should work the bidding process for the stadium.

The original bill was drafted to help the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD) determine which health care fields could benefit from greater diversity, linguistic and cultural knowledge. It's a bill that could be beneficial for my brother, who is a rare male in a female-dominated sector. SB 43 was moving swimmingly through committee when, on June 30, all language was replaced with rules that govern that the design-build process for the stadium only. It doesn't establish rules for any other joint powers agencies that may undertake other stadium building projects throughout the state. The bill has gone back into committee.

So what we have is effectively a legislative trick play. Masquerading as a simple interior run, the QB (Alquist) gets the pitchback and heaves a bomb to the WR running down the sideline (49ers), all while the OL (stadium proponents) and DL (opponents) are completely unaware. In a real flea flicker the OL is usually aware, but apparently not this time.

There are all sorts of questions about how this all came about. Let's tackle them from the start.

Why the bill language change? The deadline for introducing new legislation passed at the end of February, so the only way to get these rules passed was to rub out an existing active bill.

Why didn't they just introduce the bill early in the year? My guess is that the Niners felt it would've opened the project up to greater scrutiny before they were ready to unveil the revised plan (remember how I questioned the short evaluation period before the City Council vote?). The 2007 handout made no mention of the bidding process.

Did Sen. Alquist receive a campaign contribution from the 49ers? Alquist's office also revealed late that it received a $1000 campaign contribution from the 49ers.

What's so controversial about this "no bid" change? Stadium opponents are already getting their pitchforks and torches ready now that "no bid" has entered the discussion. The city charter requires a public bidding process for projects like this, in order to get the lowest high quality bid for the allocated budget. In industry parlance it's called "design-bid-build." In this case, they're going with "design-build" which changes the process by identifying a specific lead contractor early and working hand-in-hand from the start. Design-build can yield cost reductions if done right because it can prevent expensive project changes, which cost as much in terms of development time as anything else. There are few firms that have the experience necessary to do this work. What probably happened is that the 49ers and HNTB already had feelers out with construction firms and labor groups to lock in rates and costs as well as they can, which is a good idea - the A's/Quakes have been trying to do something similar. The problem is that we're dealing with public money, for which there is already a defined process. Did the Niners jump the gun? We'll soon find out.

From the City's perspective, this is an endaround the city charter, though a charter committee will be convened to rule on the bidding process. If Santa Clara is figuring out a way to deal with this, then why is state legislation involved? This is one of those cases where a bill is unnecessary and potentially wasteful. Not in the "I want my legislators working full time on the budget" sense, more the "let local issues be handled at the local level" sense.

So why are they doing this? It sounds like the decision to go with design-build was not arrived at hastily, and it may have been baked into the project from the onset. Wouldn't it have made more sense to educate the public about the matter during, oh, the last two years? Now stadium proponents have to be careful that this issue doesn't get too hot, despite the process being a peripheral detail.

And what of the original SB 43? I doubt anyone's going to get hurt by it disappearing, and it can easily be reintroduced in the next legislative year. Though I have to wonder - was the original SB 43 just a placeholder for the existing bill?