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Lawmakers pump the brakes after Gov. Jerry Brown goes full throttle on pet projects

Lawmakers pump the brakes after Gov. Jerry Brown goes full throttle on pet projects
Construction on the bullet train in Fresno. An Assembly panel unanimously approved a Republican bill to require more oversight of the massive project.

Gov. Jerry Brown's two very pricey legacy projects took hits in the Legislature last week. They were light jabs, and he didn't even flinch.

But the fact that some fellow Democrats had the temerity to challenge the popular governor was a sign of growing legislative — and public — skepticism about these highly controversial pet projects.

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One legislative committee advanced a bill that would force the Brown administration to be more open and candid about the $64-billion, zigzagging bullet train.

Another panel approved a bill that would require a public vote before the state could gouge two mammoth, $15.5-billion water tunnels under the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

In a separate water action that was not necessarily a slap at Brown — but could cause him pain — a third committee cleared a bill that would compel counties to move more aggressively to control the draining of aquifers, especially by thirsty nut orchards.

Brown may very well step in and squash these bills like bugs before they can really annoy him.

He almost certainly would veto the train and tunnel bills if they reached him. And he'd probably try to avoid the groundwater legislation because it would drive corporate agriculture nuts.

But if legislators did summon the courage to pass these measures and Brown vetoed them, it would highlight his hypocrisy.

Here's a governor who voters grade highly for fiscal prudence on most budget matters. But he's spending wildly — many say recklessly — on a squirrelly high-speed rail system.

He likes to wear the cloak of environmentalism, especially on global warming. But he's willing to muck up the West Coast's largest estuary and tighten the valve on its fresh water without consulting the public.

This is the governor, remember, who insisted on seeking the voters' approval for a huge tax increase. That was a crowd-pleaser as he ran for election in 2010. Ordinarily, a governor would push a bill through the Legislature.

Similarly, Brown is seeking a public vote in November on a proposal to make criminal sentencing more flexible.

But he seems afraid of asking voters' permission to build the state's most-expensive-ever water project, even if it undoubtedly would jack up their water bills.

And he certainly does not want to risk querying Californians again about the bullet train, the nation's biggest infrastructure project.

Voters narrowly authorized the project in 2008, approving $9.9 billion in initial bonds. Sponsors promised the line would stretch from San Francisco and Sacramento through Los Angeles to San Diego. But San Diego and Sacramento have been axed. The total cost has doubled. There's no private investment. The feds gave $3 billion, but Congress swears that's it.

Last week, the Democratic-controlled Assembly Transportation Committee unanimously approved a Republican bill to require more legislative oversight.

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The bill, AB 2847, includes recommendations by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. It would force the High-Speed Rail Authority to provide detailed information about costs, planning and the construction timetable for each section of the line. And it would require the agency to spell out how each segment would be paid for.

Pretty commonsense stuff, you'd think. Like any successful business would require of itself.

"In my judgment," says the bill's author, Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), "they've sort of been just making it up as they go along."

"The last straw," the assemblyman says, is when directions were reversed for the initial line. The agency abandoned plans to begin the train in Burbank and run it into the San Joaquin Valley. Instead, it switched to a San Jose startup. Tracks would end in a farm field near Shafter, 20 miles north of Bakersfield.

"It's not good enough to say we're going to build this no matter what has to be done," Patterson says. "That cannot be the operating principle on a multibillion-dollar project."

The bill requiring a statewide vote on the delta tunnels squeaked out of the Assembly water committee with barely enough support.

Northern lawmakers particularly backed the measure. They're worried about the tunnels siphoning off fresh Sacramento River water before it reaches the delta, decimating young salmon and drawing in seawater. And the tunnel construction would chew up prime farmland.

Brown and tunnel advocates — southern San Joaquin Valley agriculture, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, labor unions — argue the ambitious project would make delta water deliveries more reliable. But they insist it wouldn't actually drain more delta water. So there's a contradiction.

Funding also is dicey on this project.

"They never talk about what other alternatives there are," says Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), author of the bill, AB 1713. "I'm pushing this to have a continuing conversation."

The aquifer bill would impose a moratorium on new well drilling in water basins that are critically over-drafted. Land has been sinking, damaging roads and canals in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley.

"We've reached the point where business as usual has to stop," says Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), author of the bill, AB 1317, which was approved by the Senate water committee.

"Investors have been planting orchards — such as almonds — in places never before farmed," she says. "That's all well and good if there's water."

There isn't in many places. The corporate growers are drilling deeper into plunging aquifers. And that's leaving some small towns high and dry.

Brown doesn't like to hear any of this stuff. So some Democrats are trying to shout.

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