California’s budgetary package is slowly dribbling out of the Capitol but one big issue, the fate of the state’s bullet train project, is still up in the air.
Using a singular noun “budget” no longer describes the tortuous process by which the governor and state legislators decide how to spend the state’s money.
We now have “budgets” almost too numerous to list – a budget proposed by the governor in January, a “May revise” that’s virtually an entirely new proposal, and a bare bones budget that the Legislature passes by June 15 to meet a constitutional deadline, followed by numerous “budget bill juniors” and “trailer bills.”
Even after all of those overlapping and confusing actions are taken, it’s not uncommon for further revisions to be enacted for many months thereafter, some even retroactively changing budgets from previous years.
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed what he described as “legislation that reflects the majority of the 2021-22 state budget agreement.”
“Majority” means that it, like all other pieces of the budget package, is neither comprehensive nor complete. Mostly, it’s an opportunity for Newsom, who faces a recall election in September, to once again brag about the wonderful things he’s doing for California and trumpet his campaign slogan that the state is “roaring back.”
“Harnessing the largest surplus in state history, we’re making transformative investments across the board that will help bring all our communities roaring back from the pandemic – and pay dividends for generations to come,” Newsom said. “Through this comprehensive plan, the state is taking on the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, expanding our support for Californians facing the greatest hardships, increasing opportunity for every child, confronting homelessness head-on and doubling down on our work to build resilience against the climate change impacts that threaten California’s future.”
A single paragraph at the bottom of the lengthy list of provisions not only reveals that there’s more budget work to be done, but that one of the most contentious issues is still unresolved:
“In addition, the administration continues work with the Legislature to advance investments to build a modernized and sustainable transportation system, including funding for the state’s public transportation system and high-speed rail.”
In other words, the fate of California’s much-troubled bullet train project is still unsettled.
Newsom, who’s blown hot and cold on the bullet train, wants the Legislature to tap $4.2 billion in state bond funds approved by voters in 2008 to continue work on an initial segment in the San Joaquin Valley. Newsom says that completing service from Merced to Bakersfield would set the stage for future extensions north and south.
However, Southern California legislators, led by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, contend that the money would be better spent on improving commuter transit.
Some bullet train bond money has already been diverted into improving Caltrain commuter transit on the San Francisco Peninsula and the SoCal bloc wants another share for its region. Rendon’s argument is bolstered in a poll commissioned by Assembly Democrats and leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“A slight plurality of voters surveyed, 42%, said the state should stop building the high-speed rail system and use the money elsewhere while 41% of voters said construction should continue,” the Chronicle reported.
Support for the project is highest in the San Francisco Bay Area but very weak in Southern California and the Central Valley, the site of current construction.
Any significant diversion of the bond funds could be a death sentence for the bullet train, which is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over cost projections with no end in sight. It would be a merciful death.