By STUART WALDMAN
Back to school sales. Pumpkin spice lattes. Harvest festivals. Grocery store aisles filled with Halloween candy. The signs are all pointing to one thing – autumn is here.
One of my favorite parts of autumn is Halloween. As a kid, I loved carving pumpkins, dressing up in costumes and watching scary movies. But this year I might ditch the scary movies altogether, because there’s something even scarier happening right before our eyes – a proposal to create a municipal “Bank of Los Angeles” that will expose the city of Los Angeles to an enormous amount of cost and risk.
We have a chance to nip this idea in the bud before a lot of time and energy is invested in going down this route. If voters say “No” to Measure B, the city won’t be able to move forward with this risky, expensive idea. Passage of Measure B will create political pressure to create SOMETHING (even if the result is governance that is both expensive and risky) and to keep throwing new taxpayer money after bad money.
The City Council first introduced the idea of a Bank of L.A. last year. It was first proposed in order to increase access to banking services for cannabis-related businesses; then the stated purpose became more about financing for affordable housing; and now proponents are talking a lot about serving unbanked residents and saving the city money. Proponents repeatedly cite the Bank of North Dakota, which is the ONLY successful municipal financial institution in the country, and whose own president has said it should not serve as a model for other municipalities. The city’s Legislative Analyst completed a comprehensive report earlier this year, which found that a Bank of L.A. would face enormous risk, startup costs and require extensive legislative and regulatory changes.
We’ve seen this horror movie before. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well. Back in the ’90s, the Los Angeles Community Development Bank was established. Six years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, it permanently closed its doors after a series of bad investments, risky loans, lawsuits and accusations that it misdirected federal money. Local officials squandered millions of dollars by financing unworkable projects that didn’t pencil out, investing in businesses that quickly failed and funding social programs without considering how they might (or might not) actually strengthen the community.
Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. We can’t afford the high level of risk involved in creating a Bank of Los Angeles. The startup costs for the bank are astronomical. Billions of dollars would be spent to create a high-risk bank destined to be inefficient and operate at a loss.
The Bank of Los Angeles would be designed by L.A. City bureaucrats … the same people responsible for the City’s RecycLA program, budget deficit, streets littered with potholes and a whole slew of other projects that haven’t succeeded. And now the city wants to create a government-owned and controlled bank that will hold billions of dollars of city money, including the working capital and reserve funds for the Department of Water and Power, LAX, sanitation, city pension plans and other rainy-day funds.
This bank is a shiny, new object for the city to moon over instead of actually trying to make current programs workable. Why can’t the city focus on doing its programs well?
We have successful models that provide support to small businesses, such as Valley Economic Development Center right here in the Valley. Cities and the state are also creating innovative new programs to increase the supply of affordable housing. A municipal bank would face the same hurdles as traditional banks in serving the cannabis industry. None of these problems require a municipal bank to solve them. And based on other City of L.A. programs such as RecycLA, it might be better to focus on supporting those existing models with track records of success than to start a whole new program.
Public banking won’t work in Los Angeles and it certainly won’t solve any of the city’s current problems. If we are serious about solving the housing crisis and giving the cannabis industry access to banking, we need to stop getting distracted by bad ideas that will murder Los Angeles’ economy.
Stuart Waldman is president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a business advocacy organization based in Van Nuys that represents employers in the San Fernando Valley at the local, state and federal levels of government.