AB 3034 finally passed the Assembly today on a 54-15 vote. The bill is NOT going to be sent to Arnold Schwarzenegger immediately, though, in hopes that a budget deal will be reached by Saturday.
AB 3034 would have been sent to the governor sooner had Senate Republicans not blocked its passage for several weeks, and Bakersfield Republican Roy Ashburn was the central figure in the delay. This blog was extremely critical of Ashburn for these delays. But were we wrong to do so?
Lois Henry is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and an ardent HSR supporter. In her column today she suggests Ashburn's actions were actually GOOD for HSR:
Here I was all set to blast State Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, for letting politics get in the way of progress, when common sense and fiscal responsibility got smack in my way.
His, not mine....
Being the jaded gal I am, I chalked up his apparent Luddite ways to his plans to run for the Board of Equalization when he’s termed out in 2010. No one has a prayer of winning that office with out the blessing of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and I’d just seen an editorial in the Orange County Register by the Jarvis group repeating Ashburn’s points nearly word for word.
Ah HA! I thought. This is just Ashburn feathering his future nest by dumping on the constituents in his current nest. The first phase of the 800-mile train corridor, after all, would be built from Bakersfield to Merced, giving us access to clean rapid transit before the rest of the state.
What the heck was Ashburn thinking?
Actually, he was thinking about making sure this project comes to fruition responsibly by not getting caught up in the emotion and instead sticking to facts.
I think Henry's first instincts were right - Ashburn was posturing for the Howard Jarvis Association in what will likely be a spirited contest for the Board of Equalization seat. But Henry thinks Ashburn was actually trying to do HSR a favor. Problem is, a close examination of her defense of Ashburn reveals some holes in the case:
Facts such as the High Speed Rail Authority’s business plan was last updated in 2000 and they didn’t plan to do a new one until October, meaning anyone voting absentee might not have a chance to dig into the particulars until after their ballot was cast. Under the fix Ashburn advocated, the business plan must be updated by Sept. 1.
But if Ashburn was genuinely interested in an updated business plan, why did he wait until July to demand one? He had plenty of time to call for it - AB 3034 was introduced way back in February. He had plenty of time to make his wishes known. Further, his delay meant that the production of a new business plan was also delayed. If he really wanted to give voters the opportunity to "dig into the particulars" shouldn't he have ensured that the bill got passed quickly, so that the Authority could produce the most complete and accurate document possible? Ashburn's delay has jeopardized even the Sept. 1 deadline, since AB 3034 still isn't signed by the governor.
Henry goes on:
And facts such as, under the existing proposition, the authority could stick its hand in the cookie jar and spend that $10 billion willy nilly with little or no oversight. Under Ashburn’s amendments, the authority must request money through the budget process, which means a lot more public scrutiny.
I did not realize that was part of AB 3034 - and I am not pleased. Far from a positive move, this could be an *extremely* bad change. Requesting money through an annual budget process is guaranteed to drive up the cost of the project and delay construction. Instead of the Authority releasing funds as contractors need it, to suit a proper and efficient construction schedule, they have to wait on a state budget process that is ALWAYS late. It also makes it difficult for the project managers to plan construction since they can't count on the money always being there. Worse, this makes it possible for politicians to stick their own hands in the cookie jar and mess with the way money is spent, causing inefficiencies and politically-motivated bad spending choices.
If Ashburn merely wanted to give, say, an independent commission the ability to disburse the money that'd have been one thing. But what makes him think politicians who haven't solved the state's budget crisis for 30 years are going to be effective stewards of HSR bond money?
It's difficult for me to see Ashburn's move here as beneficial for or in the best interests of the HSR project. Few things are more likely to cause delays and cost overruns than an annual budget appropriation.
Henry explains that she isn't convinced by some of Ashburn's other arguments:
I’d vote for the proposition either way. California must solve our ever worsening air and traffic conditions. But I’m glad Ashburn is asking some tough questions and keeping an eye on the bottom line.
I do disagree with Ashburn’s take that the authority has only a vague idea of how the train would operate, its ridership numbers, proposed fares, alignment and technology.
Almost all of that has been ironed out in painstaking detail, according to documents on the authority’s Web site and according to Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the authority.
That should be a clue that Ashburn really doesn't have the project's best interests in mind. Looking at this in whole - raising objections at the 11th hour, demanding a new business plan and then blocking the bill that would provide it, turning a smooth project funding process into something chaotic and dependent on a broken state budget process, and then demonstrating a lack of knowledge about the HSR operating details - all suggests that Ashburn actually was trying to block HSR, and that the amended AB 3034 isn't as great for the project as Henry believes.
We'll see what happens with AB 3034. Either way we, like Lois Henry, will be voting for Prop 1(A). But the issues she raises suggest some of the battles we will have to face after we win that vote. If you thought this blog was going away on November 5th...heh. Not gonna happen. We'll still have plenty of work to do.