If Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is elected governor as expected, he’ll keep building the state’s two contentious public works projects: the bullet train and twin water tunnels. But he’ll scale back both.
He’ll be more cautious, realistic and practical about the super-expensive projects than termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown.
Newsom will concentrate on completing a high-speed rail line from the San Joaquin Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area. The southern half of the ambitious project, from the valley into Los Angeles, will be delayed until the initial line proves to be financially feasible and can attract more money from taxpayers or private investors.
As for the embattled water project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, Newsom will try to reduce its size to one tunnel. That would ease northern fears of a Southern California water grab.
The Democratic front-runner and his underdog rival, Republican businessman John Cox, competed in a debate Monday. But the train, tunnels and other vital state issues weren’t raised. So I called Newsom and he phoned back.
I also called and emailed Cox, but neither the candidate nor his staff responded. He previously has said he’d kill both big projects.
Who won the debate? No one. The event was so obscure it might as well not have happened. Unfortunately, it will be the only gubernatorial debate before election day. Tough luck for voters, who want to hear more from the candidates.
Newsom is adhering to the front-runners’ common playbook: Minimize debates and don’t give your underdog opponent a free public forum. And don’t risk a debate when you could say something really stupid and lose votes.
This debate wasn’t even televised. It was on public radio at 10 o’clock in the morning — after the rush when commuters might have been listening — on a Monday, Columbus Day. The radio station, KQED in San Francisco, made the debate available statewide for any broadcaster that wanted it.
Cox shouldn’t complain. He could have had a televised debate in primetime but screwed up. CNN wanted to host a Q&A and Newsom initially agreed. But Cox demanded that the questions be limited to certain subjects. Newsom objected. And CNN pulled out.
The sole debate can be summarized this way: Newsom repeatedly accused Cox of being a lackey for “Trump and Trumpism.” Cox consistently charged that Newsom had “been in government 16 years and hasn’t done much.”
Actually, not doing much if anything is the official job description for lieutenant governor. Newsom also was San Francisco’s mayor for seven years, and Cox blamed him for the city’s homeless problem. Of course, homelessness is rampant in cities all over California where Newsom was never mayor.
Times reporters Phil Willon and Dakota Smith wrote a comprehensive story about the debate in Tuesday’s paper and you can look that up. I wanted to ask the candidates questions that weren’t asked. Newsom agreed, Cox didn’t.
On the $77-billion bullet train, which is way behind schedule with a ticket price more than double original projections: The plan a few years ago was “unrealistic and we weren’t being honest and transparent about the project,” Newsom told me. But he thinks that has changed.
He’s optimistic that the line from the San Joaquin Valley to Silicon Valley can be built. That would allow tech workers to live affordably in Merced or Modesto and commute to well-paying jobs near San Jose.
“It’s not a train to nowhere,” Newsom said. “It’s insulting to suggest the Central Valley is nowhere. This is an economic development project, connecting the fastest growing and most dynamic economic regions in the country. That project is achievable and realistic.
“The second phase [boring through the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles] is an open-ended question.”
On the $17-billion monstrous twin tunnels under the delta that would siphon fresh Sacramento River water into aqueducts headed mainly to Southern California, Newsom said:
“I’d like to see a more modest proposal, but I’m not going to walk away. Doing nothing is not an option…. The status quo is not helping salmon.”
How modest? “A single tunnel.” With less capacity, he continued, northerners might have some “trust” that the dominant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California wouldn’t get too greedy.
“Mark my word,” Newsom said. “If I’m [elected], this is going to be on my front burner from Day 1. I’m going to come in with a fresh set of ideas on both projects.”
I also asked him about education, another subject that wasn’t raised in the debate. Newsom would focus on the “readiness gap” — kids not being prepared to start school. He wants “universal access to preschool.” Where would he get the money? “We need to prioritize.”
And then there’s the time bomb-ticking issue of California’s outdated, unstable tax system. It’s too vulnerable to the economic cycle — when times are good, the state over-collects, when they’re bad, taxes tank. The state relies too narrowly on the rich. It needs to broaden the tax base.
“I’m open to putting everything on the table,” Newsom said. “That includes Proposition 13 — not so much on residential property, but commercial.”
He envisions lowering the state income tax rate for the middle class and extending the sales tax to services.
“Jerry wasn’t interested in it,” Newsom said of Brown. “This is tough stuff.”