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State Net Capitol Journal Legislative Updates: Brown Has Golden State Thinking Big Even In Tough Times

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Brown Has Golden State Thinking Big Even In Tough Times

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.

High-Speed Rail System

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 details.

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 later.

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 plan.

"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 do that."

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 aide 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 initiative."

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 supporting it."

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 Prop 30.

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 2010."What California is doing will have a positive impact because it moves all of high-speed rail forward," he says.

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.

 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 everything?"

ENVIRONMENTAL and ENERGY: NEW JERSEY Gov. Chris Christie (R) signs SB 1925, which requires Garden State utilities to buy more solar energy and move up their state-required solar energy purchase schedule by about four years (NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM). ENVIRONMENT: The PENNSYLVANIA Commonwealth Court overturns a new Keystone State law requiring local municipalities to allow Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling in areas where it would conflict with their zoning rules. The court ruled those changes would alter the character of neighborhoods and make the existing municipal zoning plans irrational. Gov. Tom Corbett (R) said the state will appeal the ruling (BLOOMBERG.COM, PITSBURGH POST-GAZETTE). • ILLINOIS Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signs HB 3888, which requires any vehicle, seaplane or watercraft that enters a Prairie State body of water to remove all aquatic plants or animals from its exterior before leaving or being transported away from that water (ILLINOIS GOVERNOR'S OFFICE). • NEW YORK Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signs AB 9422, legislation that requires state environmental officials to develop regulations for combating the spread of invasive species, including creating a system of fines and penalties for possessing or transporting those species. The law takes effect in approximately six months (STATE NET, ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT & CHRONICLE). • NORTH CAROLINA Gov. Bev Perdue (D) allows HB 819, a bill that imposes a four-year moratorium on the state Coastal Resources Commission authorizing any sea-level forecast to be used as the basis for regulations on development or business, to become law without her signature. The measure also allows local governments the authority to develop their own scientific studies during the moratorium (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER).  

- Compiled by RICH EHISEN

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