Voters deserve a do-over on bullet train vote

Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — The car salesman offers you a sleek new luxury model for $33,000. Go for it, you think. Time for an upgrade. Sold.

Oops, the sales guy says later. Those numbers won’t pencil. We’ll need $98,000.

You’re stunned and outraged.

Tell you what, the dealer counters. We’ll let ya have it for $68,000 and take off some options.

Take the car and shove it, you tell him. Can’t afford it. Don’t need it.

You’re entitled to do that — back out of a car deal before taking delivery. But apparently not a bullet train.

Once you sign up for a bullet train, you’re stuck, no matter the bait-and-switch on cost and details.

You’re only entitled to buyer’s remorse, short of a citizens’ ballot initiative. And there’s no special interest money to pay for that.

Put six zeros on each of those dollar numbers for the car and it’s a similar story to what has been happening with California’s proposed high-speed rail.

Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale) wants to give Californians an opportunity to back out of the train deal, to vote again in November on the project that has substantially changed since they narrowly approved the original version.

Being a Republican, La Malfa has no chance of getting his bill out of the parking garage in a Capitol controlled by Democrats, whose election campaigns are generously backed by labor unions seeking rail line construction jobs.

“I’m really tired of the jobs argument,” La Malfa says. “We shouldn’t be doing things just to create jobs. There has to be a public benefit. We could spend the money fixing highways and bridges. But it’s not as sexy to do maintenance.”

Then there’s Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point), who is sponsoring what she calls a “lemon law.” It would scrap the train project flat-out. That bill also is going nowhere.

Harkey has a backup idea: Ask the voters whether they’d like to convert the nearly $10 billion they approved for high-speed rail into money to upgrade regional train systems.

“I guarantee you they would say yes,” she told a Senate committee hearing where La Malfa’s bill stalled last week. “Tell voters this is for regional rail, and Jerry Brown might have a win. And he needs a win, because we’re going to have him [as governor] for six years.”

That seemed a little startling: a Republican lawmaker conceding a Democratic governor’s reelection more than two years before the voting. I asked her about it later and she didn’t recant the prophesy.

“We need to have him succeed,” she said. “If he succeeds, the state will succeed. We cannot afford to have the state fail.”

But she criticized “throwing money away” on the Brown-backed bullet train, “or ‘Moonbeam Express,’ whatever you want to call it.”

Brown is the biggest bullet booster, ridiculing as “declinists” the skeptics who point out that California still hasn’t found nearly enough money to fund the project.

“The problem is the same thing as building the Golden Gate Bridge or the Central Valley Water Project or the transcontinental railroad or the Panama Canal,” the governor said recently in a radio interview. “It takes a big mind. It takes some guts. And it takes a long time.”

It also takes big bucks and a clear head.

In each of Brown’s examples — and others frequently cited by him and bullet bulls — the project was paid for by a dedicated revenue source: a toll, a tax, a user fee. Or by a federal government.

California may be a so-called nation state, but that’s hyperbole. We are simply a state, and a basically broke one. No state has ever built its own high-speed rail system.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst last week called funding for the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line “highly speculative.” It recommended that the Legislature reject Brown’s request for $2.6 billion in bond money to begin laying track in the San Joaquin Valley.

The latest price tag for the project is $68 billion. Roughly $42 billion of that is supposed to come from the federal government. But only $3.3 billion is anywhere in sight. Private investment is also being counted on for $13 billion, but no one is buying.

If the feds don’t come through, Brown wants to use new cap-and-trade fees that the state plans to collect from industry in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the legislative analyst warned that’s legally suspect.

Nevertheless, this train seems to be leaving the station. The tracks are greased for legislative approval of the bond money in late August. A majority vote is all that’s required.

Among Democrats, only three senators have been waving a red flag: Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach and Mark DeSaulnier of Concord.

“Our job is oversight, not cheerleading,” Simitian declared last week as he chaired a contentious budget subcommittee hearing on Brown’s bond request. One would hope.

Lowenthal, chairman of a Senate Committee on High-Speed Rail, told me: “I’m real nervous about this. I’ve got to be convinced, and right now I’m not. We could lose our shirts on this.”

Yet no Democrat seems willing to ask voters again about the bullet. And that’s understandable. They’d probably derail the train for good, polls show.

Without a new public mandate, however, this project will be very risky — not only for the state treasury, but also potentially for Brown and the other cheerleaders.

Allowing the public a chance to cancel this dramatically altered deal amounts to good consumer protection, something Democrats normally advocate.