With the California Federation of Teachers, the California Nurses Association, the Courage Campaign and civil rights lawyer Molly Munger all mucking up his plans for a ballot measure seeking a temporary tax hike (not to mention some disgruntled unions bitching about where he’s getting funding for his measure), you gotta wonder why Gov. Jerry Brown has also taken on high speed rail as a cause.
But he has. He’s even suggested that failure to build an 800-mile high-speed rail (HSR) line up the spine of California would reduce the state to the status of a third-world country.
It’s pretty clear he sees HSR as the Next Big Thing – akin to the interstate highway system, the Panama Canal, landing on the Moon and Lady Gaga’s meat dress. “Just like Lincoln built the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War … you’ve got to think big,” he said the other day on KCBS radio.
But tipping the scales at over $100 billion, with Republicans in Congress threatening to prevent federal funds from being used for the project at all (although, or maybe because, it’s a favorite of President Obama), and with the state auditor questioning the project’s financial feasibility, HSR looks to critics like a giant (hash) pipe dream.
As our old friend Steve Lopez at the LAT put it in a column the other day:
“When you can’t figure out how to pay for schools and colleges, road improvements, support for the elderly and disabled — not to mention a hundred other things — should you begin building a railroad no one is sure how to pay for? Especially when several recent reports, including one by the railroad authority’s own peer review group, suggest there’s a huge risk of financial disaster?”
So in addition to getting input from Calbuzz catroonist Tom Meyer, we asked our Calbuzz Advisory Board of Leading Authorities on Practically Everything (slogan: The Best Damn Political Panel on the Net) whether high speed rail is a winner or a loser for Brown, substantively and politically.
Surprisingly, our panelists were conflicted, and not exactly along party lines, although more Democrats than Republicans said HSR is a winner for Brown and among those who said it was a winner, more were Democrats than were Republicans.
There were also a few in our Consultanate who see both positives and negatives for Brown. “It cuts both ways,” said one Democratic panelist. “It makes him look visionary and forward-looking with a positive message regarding planning for the future, creating jobs and reducing pollution. But it also reminds voters of his Gov. Moonbeam reputation and he could lose points he’s built up being a fiscal conservative.”
“If the Republicans lose Congress and Obama is re-elected, it is a winner,” agreed a conservative Republican on the panel. “Otherwise, without federal money, it is a white elephant. He has gotten carried away with the vision thing.”
Some suggested HSR will give opponents of Brown’s tax-hike measure further evidence to persuade voters that Brown is a tax-and-spend liberal who wants to get in your pocketbook and thrown your quarters into the gutter.
That’s not an argument that worries Brown’s advisers: they see a balanced budget, jobs and schools as much more pressing issues for voters than HSR. And even though they’ve just raised $2 million in five-and-a-half weeks, they’re much more concerned about whether other tax measures get funding and make the ballot. HSR is just commentary in the big political picture, in their thinking.
Here’s what the Calbuzz Consultanate had to say:
HSR is a winner
Republican: It is a winner politically, because the spending lobby is part of his core constituencies. It is a loser substantively, because voters will reject the tax increases and the legislature and Governor will have lost one more year to get their budget in line with income.
Democrat: Here is a great example of California’s political process getting in the way of a good idea. The clock is ticking on the days of easily available, inexpensive air travel from San Francisco to LA. We’re going to need another option and high speed rail is it. There is always opposition to transit projects, in part because if you wait to build them till you need them, it’s too late.
But the Rail Authority is a disaster, and the even the most ardent supporter of rail can’t look at what the authority has done or where the project now stands and say “this is how things should be.” The governor is right to want to build it, and right to reign in the Authority. In an interview in early 2010, Brown was answering questions about his father and he said “my father is known as a builder, and if I could do anything, I’d want to be known as a builder too.” This is his chance. Substantively, he’s right, but he might not get credit for it until well after his time in office has expired. From communication satellites to trains, a good indication that Brown is on the right track is if Republicans are making fun of him for it.
Democrat: High speed rail is a long term winner for Brown on both policy and politics. High speed rail could be Brown’s most far-reaching and lasting accomplishment for the state. It’s the only thing on the table that could match the impact of the first Gov. Brown. By the time it is built, California roads are likely to be even more congested, making high speed rail more needed and more popular.
In the short term, if Brown manages to take charge of high speed rail and get a positive message communicated, he could turn things around for this troubled project. That translates to a big political win for him with labor, environmentalists and eventually the public. A majority of California voters want more investment in infrastructure and more mass transit. People have lost faith in the project in part because they’re only hearing negative news.
The California high speed rail effort has suffered from a weak public relations effort, too much planning and too little action, and the incomprehensible decision to make the first link a train to nowhere. Brown has a chance to rebuild public support by making some real changes at the agency, streamlining costs, and telling the positive story of how the project would create jobs and keep our economy moving.
Democrat: Brown inherited a mess: an understaffed agency trying to bite off more than it could chew, the Ogilvy PR fiasco, and provisions built into the ballot measure (like a peer review committee with inherent conflicts of interest) that limit flexibility in making high speed rail work. Add to that the shelling coming from DC simply because this is an Obama priority, along with the typical NIMBY crowds in the Bay Area and Central Valley. But give Brown credit for his attempts to reboot the project. He’s installed smart, no-nonsense commissioners (Dan Richard being the top gun), been creative with long term funding options (cap and trade revenue), and is insisting on a cheaper, more logical project. High Speed Rail fits perfectly into Brown’s longstanding reputation for looking beyond the next election. And though the project is taking its lumps — just as the California water project, I-5 construction, and other megaprojects have — it’s a smart move for the long haul.
Democrat: Winner – it is optimistic and future oriented – every project worth a damn was the object of contemporary derision.
Democrat: Long term, high speed rail will be a reality. Whether Jerry Brown gets the credit, is too early to tell. It shows that he is still visionary and not willing to govern exclusively by poll results.
Republican: Ultimately it’s a winner, because it gives Brown a chance to do what California needs — kick us in the pants.We’ve been taking it on the chin — high unemployment, companies leaving, right-coasters smugly charting our demise. All this bad-mouthing has taken a toll on the state psyche. Instead of feeling cool, we’re shuffling around like losers.
This lets Brown remind us of our past glory and encourage us to start dreaming big dreams again. Hell, we built the rocket that put a man on the moon, we can certainly build a high-speed train. It’s a jobs creator and a good infrastructure investment. But even more important, it’s a forward-looking vision for what California should be. It gives us something to achieve.
Of course, if we had built it 25 f**king years ago like we should have, we would have saved about $90 billion.
Democrat: Twenty-nine years from now Californians will realize Jerry Brown was ahead of his time and right again. People will be either happy he succeeded in moving the project forward, or wondering why there isn’t high speed rail and asking who were the idiots who opposed it.
On the fence:
Democrat: The answer depends on whether you think it’s better politics to aim too low and make it than aim too high and miss it. Governor Brown’s leadership here burnishes his reputation as an outside-the-budget-box visionary and puts him on the right side of business leaders, building trades, green jobs and the White House.
HSR is a Loser:
Republican: The state goes broke in a couple months and he wants to build a train to replace Southwest Airlines. I like Southwest. I can drink a beer and eat peanuts just as easily on Southwest as I can on a train, and it won’t raise my taxes.
Democrat: I have no idea why Gov Brown has decided to take this on. Of so many incredibly important things the Governor could be championing, this sure does NOT rise high, especially because like the water issue, the state is so divided. Quentin Kopp’s original running of this is now being proven to be so corrupt and fraught with mismanagement it’s surprising to me Jerry would want to attach himself to its current iteration.
And if it were to go on the ballot for any type of reason, I believe the voters would kill it dead. When teachers are being laid off and fire stations and libraries are being closed, voters see High Speed Rail as a luxury we just cannot afford right now.
Democrat: This high speed rail deal has more problems than Newt Gingrich. It is a big distraction and a total waste of the Governor’s time and political capital.
Republican: This is a loser for the Governor. For his own sake, I wish he’d drop it. It drains his political capital and really screws up his narrative for raising taxes. Right or wrong, HSR is increasingly seen as a complete incompetent boondoggle. So how do you ask voters to raise taxes when you’re building a wasteful train to nowhere?
Republican: It’s a dog with fleas. How can he credibly argue that taxpayers should pay higher sales and income taxes while defending a multi-billion dollar waste of money. With a millions behind this message on TV and Jon Coupal’s handsome mug, Brown would lose, in part, because of his own decision on HSR.millions behind this message on TV and Jon Coupal’s handsome mug, Brown would lose, in part, because of his own decision on HSR.
Republican: Interesting — with Jerry Brown embracing HSR, he is opening himself up for criticism and gives opponents of his tax plan a powerful argument that Brown wants more taxes for more wasteful spending. On the other hand, it allows the governor to tilt at windmills and be the futurist in a way that defies political expediency. An analysis would suggest he is engaged in a net negative.
Democrat: Oh, I’m sure Brown has thought this out down to the last detail, like he does all of his grand ideas. It’s clearly an attempt by Brown to burnish his legacy and overcome the “small is beautiful” mantra of his previous governorship by latching onto a big project. Pick a big project, any project . . .