During the 30-plus years Barbara O'Connor has known
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), she says the man once derided as "Gov.
Moonbeam" has developed a well-deserved reputation as someone never
inclined to back down from a big challenge.
"Jerry Brown has always believed in solving large problems," says
O'Connor, emeritus director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and
Media at California State University Sacramento. "And he's willing to bet
the farm to get things done."
He may be doing that now. At a time when most states are still pinching pennies
at every turn, Brown is backing a pair of controversial and wildly expensive
public works projects: a $68 billion high-speed rail system and a new $23
billion plan to revamp the way the state delivers water from water-sufficient
northern California to the parched southern part of the state. They are
high-risk, high reward measures that will come to fruition - if they ever do -
long after Brown has left the political stage.
In July, Brown signed SB 1029, legislation that authorized almost $6 billion to
start construction on the rail project's initial 130-mile segment. About $2.6
billion of that is in state bonds, with slightly more than $3 billion in
matching federal funds. But in order to get lawmakers on board, Brown also
tossed another $1.9 billion of state money into the mix to improve current
urban rail lines and connect them to the high-speed system. The bill passed the
Democrat-controlled Senate without a vote to spare.
Funding the rest will be complicated. When voters approved the original $10
billion bond measure to create the system in 2008, the entire project was
supposed to cost about $33 billion, with the rest of the money coming from the
federal government and private investors. But the plan has since undergone
myriad incarnations, at once ballooning to almost $100 billion. When this
happened, Brown replaced the California High-Speed Rail Authority's top brass
with his own people, who reconfigured the project to reduce its costs to the
current $68 billion estimate. Even so, Congress has backed off future funding,
leaving the state with no certain way to complete the project. Brown has
alluded to other possibilities, including private investment or using funds
from the state's impending cap-and-trade plan, but he has yet to offer any
Questions also still abound as to whether the completed high-speed rail system
will ever have enough riders to make it self-supporting. Critics question the
first leg's placement in the sparsely populated Central Valley, calling it a
"train to nowhere." Although supporters say the project will create
130,000 jobs in one of the state's most economically depressed areas, critics
contend a train in that region is unlikely to produce the regular ridership
needed to be self sustaining. Governors in Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin - all
Republicans - have rejected federal grants to build high-speed rail lines in
their states, in part over similar ridership concerns.
The water infrastructure, meanwhile, entails building two massive tunnels to
convey water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in the north to the
relentlessly thirsty farms and urban centers to the south. Federal matching
funds aren't available for that project, but around $14 billion is expected to
come from the system's biggest users, as many as three dozen separate water
agencies. The other $9 billion is supposed to come from a 2009 bond measure
brokered by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), which was intended to pay for
a variety of environmental and water conservation programs. But the bonds need
voter approval, and the state's struggling economy has forced lawmakers to push
it off the ballot twice, once in 2010 and again this year. The measure is now
supposed to go before voters in 2014.
Whether they will endorse it then remains to be seen. Californians have almost
never agreed on how to update the state's water delivery system, as Brown
himself learned the hard way during his first governorship 30 years ago.
Although he persuaded lawmakers to endorse legislation to fund what was then
called a "peripheral canal," voters rejected the proposal a year
The two projects come at a time when the governor is focused on the major
undertaking of his governorship: Proposition 30, an initiative he placed on the
November ballot to raise more than $8 billion in new revenues by hiking the
state sales tax a quarter percent and temporarily raising income taxes on the
state's biggest wage earners (See "Can Jerry Brown rekindle the California
Dream?" in the April 16 SNCJ). Brown signed a budget in June that closed a
$16 billion shortfall, but only if voters approve these new taxes. If not, the
state's K-12, community college and university systems will all see billions of
dollars in funding cuts.
While that once seemed unlikely, the rail and water projects may be hurting
Prop 30's standing with voters. Last April, a USC/Los Angeles Times poll showed
64 percent of voters favored Brown's tax proposal. But by July 5, Field Poll
data showed that support had dropped to 54 percent, and one in three presumed
voters said they were less likely to support Proposition 30 if lawmakers and
the governor moved ahead with the high-speed rail project. As such, some
observers wonder if Brown has finally bitten off more than he can chew.
It is an opinion not shared by the man himself.
"Biting off too much?...If the fear of electoral outcomes is going to be a
basis of paralysis, we are never going to get anything done," a combative
Brown scoffed during a press conference on July 25 after laying out the water
"At this stage, as I see many of my friends dying, I want to get
[expletive] done," the 74-year-old Brown said. "And I'm going to get
this done. All right? We are not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and
stare at our navel."
California state Sen. Ted Lieu (D) also doubts that high-speed rail or the
governor's water proposal will hurt Prop 30's chances.
"I'm not concerned about that at all," he says. "The most
important thing right now is to stimulate the economy, and high-speed rail will
Others disagree. While opponents commend Brown for his willingness to think
big, they argue that California is just not in the position to take on so many
big ticket items at once.
"You have to laud the governor for having big goals, but the battles he's
picking are the hardest ones," says Mitch Zak, a partner at Randle
Communications in Sacramento and an aid to former Gov. Pete Wilson (R).
"Usually you look for the low hanging fruit, but he's going right for the
top of the tree."
Dan Schnur, Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the
University of Southern California and another former Wilson advisor, also
questions whether Brown can pull off such an artful political hat trick.
"If Jerry Brown is as smart as I think he is, he would go before the
people and tell them that high-speed rail simply has to wait," Schnur
says. "Do I expect him to do that? No. But if not, he is essentially
deciding that high-speed rail is more important than his tax
But O'Connor says Brown's confidence is not hubris. She believes that while the
tax vote will be close, the governor's campaign "will ultimately resonate
with the voters."
To do that, however, California Assembly minority leader Connie Conway (R) says
Brown will have to do a remarkable sales job.
"God Bless the governor," she says. "We're saying we need a tax
increase because we can't pay our bills, but then we have $10 billion to spend
on high-speed rail? Really? The governor is a very smart man and politically
very savvy, but this is going to be a really big lift. I don't see voters
Conway also notes the presence of two other major tax hike measures on the
November ballot, including one sponsored by civil rights attorney Molly Munger
that would raise about $10 billion a year to put toward Golden State schools.
Brown has sparred at length with Munger over the competing measures, recently
winning a court battle to have his initiative listed at the top of voters'
ballots, where it is theoretically more likely to gain approval. He earned
another major victory last week when the California Democratic Party endorsed
Brown's measure is also backed by the politically powerful California Teachers
Association. But to be successful, says Mark Baldassare, president of the
Public Policy Institute of California, Brown will have to get support from well
beyond the Dems' usual base.
"The governor has to overcome the voters' perception that the state
government wastes a lot of money, and that will require evidence of broad-based
support for his initiative and endorsements outside of Sacramento," he
told SNCJ in an email.
Bill Hauck, another former Wilson aid who also served as Chief of Staff to
Assembly Speakers Bob Moretti and Willie Brown, both Democrats, also notes that
Brown's opponents have not yet even begun to fight.
"There has not been an opposition campaign yet," Hauck wrote in an
email. "A campaign also will argue, accurately I believe, that the taxes
are not likely to produce the revenue being promised and will not be the long
term solution the state needs."
Many others outside of California will also be watching closely to see if Brown
can pull all of this off, particularly the high-speed rail system. Although the
2009 federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act targeted funding in 32
states for high-speed rail funds, the federal push for bullet trains went off
the tracks after the GOP took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in
Now, folks like Ron Pate, Rail Operations Manager for the Washington state
Department of Transportation, say states like his will be anxiously watching
California for a sign that other funding sources can be found.
"What California is doing will have a positive impact because it moves all
of high-speed rail forward," he says.
It is that thinking, O'Connor says, that drives Brown, whom she calls "a
visionary who sees the big picture." The question is whether he can get
others to buy into that same vision.
"California has always led the way with innovation," she says.
"We're the perfect place to do these experiments. At the end of the day,
you have to start somewhere, and if you're going to go for broke, why not fix
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