Bullet train vote demonstrates California Legislature working well

Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO—When the California Legislature works, this is one example of how it works well.

But one big caveat: We’re talking about functional versus dysfunctional, leadership versus ineptitude — a system that is running smoothly rather than broken.

We’re not necessarily talking about a desired policy result. Sometimes you lose. (If you’re a California Republican, you usually do in Sacramento.)

First, the math: Gov. Jerry Brown and his legislative leader allies needed a majority vote in each house — 41 in the Assembly, 21 in the Senate — to spend the initial $8 billion in high-speed rail construction money ($4.7 billion in state bonds, $3.3 billion in federal grants).

All Republicans were opposed. That was no problem in the Assembly. Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) quickly rounded up all 52 Democratic votes.

The heavy action was in the Senate as lawmakers headed for a monthlong vacation starting Friday. The feds were threatening to pull back their money if the Legislature didn’t immediately put up the state’s.

Brown and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) needed 21 of the 25 Democratic votes and four were firmly opposed, leaving no room for give.

Despite urging from the governor’s office, Steinberg refused to play old-fashioned politics and drop an anvil on the Democratic dissidents. “Darrell didn’t try to be heavy-handed,” said one, Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto).

Steinberg’s strategy was to avoid riling the three most outspoken Democratic opponents: Sens. Simitian, Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach and Mark DeSaulnier of Concord. They were respected and influential within the Democratic caucus. Give them space to make their case calmly without anger, Steinberg figured. Control the fire. This was a delicate situation.

In the end, after months of pushing, the trio managed to secure about $2 billion in bond money for major rail projects in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area. The plan had been to just spend $6 billion initially in the rural San Joaquin Valley.

The fourth Democratic opponent, Sen. Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills, was given a pass. She’s in a tight reelection race in a newly redrawn district where the bullet train isn’t particularly popular. So she was allowed to quietly vote “no” without any repercussion in the Capitol.

Simitian gave the longest and most eloquent floor speech. “We’re not being asked to vote on a vision today,” he said. “We’re being asked to vote on a particular plan…. This is the wrong plan, in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Noting the deep cuts the governor and Legislature have been making in public services, Simitian observed: “Any of us who talk to our folks know that they’re asking the same questions. They’re saying, ‘Really, you made these cuts, we’re threatened with more, and you want to build a high-speed rail train?’ ”

He and other opponents — mostly Republicans — noted that the $68-billion project is $55 billion short of funding and no one is certain who’s going to pay for the rest.

Besides the four unwavering “no” votes, seven other Democrats were skeptical about the unpopular venture in the days leading up to the Senate debate. If they hadn’t been persuaded to vote “yes” before the floor action, Steinberg would have delayed it — and the Legislature still might be in session.

Working with the governor, here’s how the Senate leader gently twisted arms and did some hand-holding, according to a source familiar with the jockeying who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly:

Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), whose district reaches into the outer Bay Area, was worried that the promised urban rail money wouldn’t show up. So she was guaranteed it in writing.

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) was concerned that if the Legislature spent money on the bullet train, voters would reject Brown’s proposed tax increase on the November ballot. But she owed Steinberg: He had helped “clear the field” of opposition in her reelection race.

Sen. Louis Correa (D-Santa Ana) wanted assurances that Orange County wouldn’t be punished in future bullet train funding because of local tea-party opposition to the project. Brown assured him.

Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) used to have a lousy relationship with the Senate leader, but after losing a mayoral race has been trying to get along. He promised his vote.

Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) doesn’t always side with the leadership, but normally will if his vote really is needed. It was. His was the 20th recorded vote.

Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino) cast the 21st vote that officially put the bill over the top. Roads were deteriorating in her district, she complained. So the Brown administration promised to prioritize some for repair. Also, Steinberg got a promise from Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, to quietly help Negrete McLeod with Latinos in her congressional race.

Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), however, gave Steinberg the crucial 21st commitment to vote yes just hours before the Senate debate. She was angry at Brown for cutting parks funds. But she agreed to vote for the bullet money after being assured that her district would eventually be connected to high-speed rail.

The debate was civil, thoughtful — mostly — and lengthy. Roughly two hours.

Midway through, Steinberg got nervous about the possibility of some senators slipping out the door. So he ordered them locked in. It wasn’t announced, but the word quickly spread, perhaps expediting the action.

Brown and the legislative leadership won a big victory. The system worked.

In future years, we’ll see whether it worked for just bullet boosters or for all the people of California.

As DeSaulnier told his colleagues: “I’m absolutely convinced in the rightness of my ‘no’ vote. And I absolutely hope that I’m wrong.”