Central Calif. lawmakers want economic disaster declaration

WASHINGTON -- The San Joaquin Valley's worsening recession leaves the region's lawmakers scrambling for solutions.

Studies, commissions and task forces have all been tried. Bailouts and stimulus packages are controversial, their merits still unproven. Now, lawmakers are casting about for new, unproven notions like getting the Valley designated as an economic disaster area.

"I'm tired of us getting neglected," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, were putting their heads together Friday, in the wake of the latest grim economic report card showing unemployment rates nearing 20 percent in some Valley counties.

Merced County's jobless rate of 18.9 percent rate in January was the fourth highest in California and more than twice the national average.

Merced and other Valley counties likewise lead the nation in home foreclosures. Irrigation deliveries are being shut off to Valley farms because of water shortages, some made by nature and some made by man. The region's dairy farmers are culling their herds in a desperate response to plummeting prices.

"We're trying to get members of Congress and the president to understand that this is our version of (Hurricane) Katrina," Costa said Friday.

The latest congressional brainstorming has yielded ideas but no silver bullets. Some of the ideas go well beyond strict economic aid. Others enter new territory.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia is focusing on budget and legislative reform proposals that Nunes' spokesman, Andrew House, said would address the "layer of economic lethargy" now afflicting California. One proposal would re-establish California's part-time Legislature, House said.

Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, has introduced a bill, backed by Costa and Cardoza as well, that would deliver more irrigation water by exempting California pumping plants from the Endangered Species Act during droughts.

Shortly after being slapped by the new unemployment numbers Thursday, Cardoza said he was interested in having President Barack Obama declare the Valley an "economic disaster area."

In theory, a presidential designation could make available additional federal resources. Until now, though, disaster area designations essentially have been confined to areas struck by natural disasters: floods, fire and freezes.

The notion of an "economic disaster area" takes a familiar concept in a new and untested direction, and it is uncertain what new legislation or regulations might first be required.

"Because it is clear that this economic crisis has far exceeded local and state governments' capacity ... particularly because the State of California faces severe financial constraints, I believe it is imperative that these harder-hit cities and counties in the Central Valley receive targeted and comprehensive federal relief," Cardoza wrote Obama on Friday.

Costa wrote a similar letter to Obama on Friday. The two Democrats say they soon will introduce legislation to "implement" designation of an economic disaster area. A similar letter was sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Traditional disaster declarations are relatively commonplace. More than 70 federal disaster areas have been declared by the White House since 2008, including eight in California. In these designated areas, special loans and other assistance are made available.

Separately, more than three dozen Agriculture Department-designated disaster areas are already designated in California alone. Such disaster assistance, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service noted in January, can be both "humanitarian" as well as "good political currency."

The current federal law allowing presidential declarations of a disaster area simply states that the designation must be "based on a finding that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments."

Although the economic disaster idea appears to be new, the Valley's recurring dire economic straits have prompted previous congressional maneuvering. The results have not always endured.

In 2004, for instance, Valley lawmakers directed the non-partisan Congressional Research Service to compare Valley economic conditions and government spending with those in Appalachia. The analysis was supposed to provide the rationale for funneling more federal dollars into the 27,280 square-mile region between Stockton and Bakersfield.

The resulting 365-page study provided data, but no momentum. Similarly, Valley lawmakers in 2000 pressed President Bill Clinton to establish a multi-agency task force on the Valley's economic development. President George W. Bush continued the task force, which lawmakers call a well-meaning but limited effort.

"We would have hoped that it could have done more," Costa said.