The term “big government,” when it’s used as a pejorative, is supposed to provoke the image of a swelling monster.

We picture this thing that spends money — your money — on projects and services that only serve to hook people on government spending. Then, those people are vested in policies that advocate more spending, more layers of regulation, more layers of restraint, which then demand more time and money. The monster only gets bigger as it feeds itself and needs more.

Eventually, it comes for more and more of taxpayers’ money.

This is the “big government” nightmare, correct?

If you go further, you approach Ayn Randian conclusions: That this frenzy for more and more spending leads to massive waste, inefficiency and eventually overindulgence. Then comes sloth and corruption. Despite its inefficiency, it’s still strong enough to bully for its own survival.

We must limit it and constantly question its value lest it get so powerful that it never has to prove it has any. This is the dystopia we’re supposed to fear with “big government,” yes?

That was my understanding. Then I got a statement from the city attorney that made me think about it again.

The Legislature basically voted to cut redevelopment. Whether the vote sticks or not, I don’t know.

After the vote, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith sent out this statement (emphasis mine):

The only purpose of this legislation is to save the State from having to cut its spending by the amount it forces the cities to pay. Not one penny of this money is returned to taxpayers. Big Government advocates are rejoicing that they were successful in taking money out of the communities to fund the State’s bloated bureaucracy.

Big Government, yes, was capitalized like a proper noun. It’s more of a corporation’s name than a concept when it’s like that.

Let’s review redevelopment for a second. A blighted neighborhood doesn’t have to share as much of its property tax with schools and the county as other neighborhoods do. Redevelopment officials take that money and spend it on building projects and neighborhood improvements. The state gives the schools the money they have to sacrifice to make this investment.

Assuming the vote holds, this investment has been cut off. Government isn’t getting bigger. A gargantuan state shortfall — combined with a genuine attempt to actually deal with it — has forced a decision. Where money might have been invested in a convention center expansion, Chargers stadium and affordable housing projects, it will now be reserved for education.

One person’s “taking money out of the communities” was, to others, a simple cut. It was also a message to those neighborhoods, like downtown San Diego, that they had to share their property taxes with schools at the same rate other neighborhoods do. If they want to keep doing that redevelopment thing, cities can pay for it themselves.

It was a spending cut. Not only was it not a triumph for big government, there really has not been more clear example of pulling government out of the economy than that lately. You can almost see Gov. Jerry Brown, looking in the mirror at his home and sneering, “Hmm … You Republicans wanted to get all small governmenty on us after so many years playing ball, how’s about I cut off this?”

Now, conservative writers across the state and nation — ideologists of the anti-big government movement — saw the cut as a hit out of the park, and they were the only ones I could imagine who were rejoicing. Even many supporters of the cut probably weren’t so happy it happened. Think of people like Assemblyman Ben Hueso and state Sen. Christine Kehoe, who only months ago were justifying a massive expansion of the program for San Diego’s downtown.

Local Republicans definitely were not happy.

They were seething. City Councilman Kevin Faulconer tweeted that he was disappointed. That must not have felt quite right. So he corrected himself that he was actually outraged.

Mayor Jerry Sanders, the former police chief, said it was armed robbery (emphasis mine):

We’ve spent months trying to negotiate legitimate reforms that would help close the state’s budget gap without imperiling urban revitalization and the much-needed affordable housing that redevelopment provides. Instead, the Legislature put a gun to our head, threatening to kill redevelopment agencies if they don’t hand over local tax dollars to the state instead of using them for streets, parks, housing and other local needs.

Big government put a gun to our heads and took money out of our community and we’re disappointed! Er … outraged!

It wasn’t just a modified right-wing outrage. Local liberals like Councilman Todd Gloria were deeply upset too.

Why? It was a cut. When you cut government, someone loses money or a program they believed in.

But that’s not theft. When the mayor cut library hours, nobody said he held a gun to the libraries’ heads and say he was taking money away. He just said it was a tough cut, sorry. And that’s what the state’s doing right now.

What the response revealed though, as if it were hidden, was that it’s not necessarily big government that city of San Diego Republican leaders are against. They have a resource-allocation grievance. Spending is OK, and it’s to be encouraged, in fact. Investment in downtown and, say, a new Convention Center is an obvious good. Government spending isn’t the problem for them — it’s that Other Part of Government spending that’s the problem.

I just don’t get it, they’ll say. Let’s take their objections one by one:

Jobs! They’ll say that their concern is about jobs. Cutting redevelopment kills construction jobs and then keeps us from enjoying the economic benefits of whatever’s built (think of all the housekeeping jobs the hotels will create when the radiologists move their convention to San Diego … er, oh, wait). But that Other Part of Government funds jobs too. And when we lay off the youngest teachers in a few weeks, we’ll see just what kind of people we cut off and how many more would have been lost without this cut.

Investment! Then they’ll say it’s about investment. But, again, that Other Part of Government includes things like education, which is often defined as the most important collective investment we can make.

Waste! Then they’ll say it’s about efficiency and that education and the state waste money. Then you look at some redevelopment scandals and projects and wonder where they get the nerve. Education may waste some money, and may need a major overhaul, but redevelopment’s own supporters agree that a major overhaul, or at least “legitimate reforms” of it, like the mayor offered, are necessary for them too.

At some point Sanders, Faulconer, Gloria and everyone else will have to just admit they want the money for this and not that. They could make the case about why their preferred spending was more important than the spending that was preserved. It’s a legitimate position. But it doesn’t, apparently, carry the weight of screaming that you’re the victim of armed robbery by big government.

Unfortunately it wasn’t robbery. It was a resource-allocation game that someone had to lose.

Kudos to the governor for playing it. He wins one point for allowing reality to dictate the terms of the debate. And, as a bonus, he earns the exciting opportunity to prove our educational system was worth prioritizing as an investment when times were tough.

That, by the way, isn’t going to be an open-and-shut case.

At the same time, the Legislature gave local governments the option to keep the redevelopment system alive. They just have to pay for it themselves. So, local governments win the chance to actually convince their residents these projects are worth investing in.

That isn’t an open-and-shut case either. But it’ll be interesting to see them make it.

You can contact me directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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