13 Nov Ballot measures aim to cut purse strings for Delta tunnels, high-speed rail
By Josh Richman, firstname.lastname@example.org
SACRAMENTO >> Gov. Jerry Brown could have a huge battle on his hands next year against ballot-measure proponents asking voters to essentially kill his two most-beloved public works projects — the bullet train and his proposed twin water tunnels under the Delta.
Two prominent Republicans are proposing a measure that would divert about $8 billion not yet spent from 2008’s high-speed rail bond measure, using it instead for surface water and groundwater storage projects. And another measure that already has garnered enough signatures to make next November’s ballot will ask voters to upend how California deals with bond financing for many public infrastructure projects — a direct attack on Brown’s plan for the two massive tunnels, aimed at moving more water to the Central Valley and Southern California.
Critics say both measures would give the relatively small number of Californians who actually vote — and the increasingly large amount of money spent to influence them — more sway over what the Golden State will and won’t spend on infrastructure for decades to come.
“States that live by the initiative die by the initiative,” warned Richard Little, former director of the University of Southern California’s Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy. “Democracy does not necessarily imply everyone gets to vote on everything. … Eventually you end up like India, where they vote on everything all the time and nothing gets done.”
Particularly with long-term infrastructure decisions that take years or decades to execute, “at some point, decisions have to be final,” he said, “as opposed to ‘Whoops, let’s have another review.’ “
Voters approved 2008’s Proposition 1A — a $9.95 billion bond issue, amounting to about a quarter of an 800-mile high-speed rail line’s estimated cost — by a vote of 52.7 percent to 47.3 percent. Since then, the rail project’s estimated cost has ballooned to $68 billion, officials have been accused of secrecy and mismanagement, the Republican-led Congress wants to defund it, and even some supporters have begun to waver. A groundbreaking ceremony for the project was held in January, but most of the roughly $2 billion spent so far has been for planning and design.
The measure proposed Thursday by former state Senate GOP leader Bob Huff and Board of Equalization Vice Chairman George Runner would siphon away what remains from Proposition 1A to build new surface water and groundwater storage. It also would re-appropriate about $2.7 billion not yet spent from last year’s Proposition 1 water bond — the product of a deal laboriously brokered by Brown and legislative leaders, including Huff.
Brown’s office said Friday he probably won’t comment on the measure unless it qualifies for the ballot. But Brown is a staunch high-speed rail supporter, so there’s little doubt he hates the idea.
Runner said the measure would meet California’s water needs without raising taxes or adding more debt, and Huff noted that the state’s economic survival depends on a reliable water supply.
That’s music to the ears of some drought-weary, rail-dubious voters.
“It’s good for the voters to get the ability to make a decision on the two most critical infrastructure issues facing California,” said Aaron Fukuda of Hanford, co-chair of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, a community group that tried to kill the project in court. “We need to prioritize our state’s future, and we think it’s water.”
The proposed measure also would add a new section to the California Constitution to set drinking water and irrigation as the state’s primary beneficial water-use priorities, which some might see as an end-run around environmental protection laws. Neither the National Resources Defense Council nor Sierra Club California — avid defenders of the Delta’s ecological needs — responded to requests for comment Friday.
There might be another obstacle on the tracks, too. Brown wants to use revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade carbon emissions program to help leverage private investment in the rail project — and if those investments are revenue bonds, the initiative already bound for next November’s ballot would require that voters get the final say.
The “No Blank Checks Initiative” would require that voters be asked to approve every public infrastructure bond issue of more than $2 billion that requires new or higher taxes or fees. And it would apply not only to future bonds, but to previously approved projects if the remaining bond authorization exceeds $2 billion.
State and local general obligation bonds — borrowing guaranteed by the government’s full faith and credit, repaid with general tax revenue — already must be put to voters. This measure would extend that requirement to many revenue bonds, repaid using designated funding streams related to those projects — for example, bonds issued for a bridge’s construction or repair, to be repaid by bridge tolls.
Its aim is to short-circuit Brown’s desire that bonds, to be repaid by water users, be used to fund his $15 billion Delta tunnel plan. Proponent Dean Cortopassi, a Stockton farmer and tunnel opponent, and his wife put up $4 million to circulate the qualification petitions.
Deep-pocketed opponents are already lining up, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the State Building and Construction Trades Council.
Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside professor and ballot initiative expert, said the appeal of letting voters directly decide such spending isn’t surprising. “The political leaders in the state, for a generation or more, have not been able to convince voters that they’re going to be spending the money wisely.”
That distrust has grown steadily as journalists, academics and even politicians themselves have told voters for decades “how bad and corrupt politicians are,” Bowler said. “The idea that we’re going to have good public servants is gone from the public discourse.”