What’s Next for High Speed Rail: The Politics
As we all shake off our hangovers from celebrating yesterday’s dramatic State Senate vote to fund the high speed rail project, it’s time to take stock of where the project stands and where we go from here. Today I’m going to look at the project’s political fortunes, which of course determine everything else about the project’s actual operational details. Tomorrow we’ll look more at those details and see exactly what comes next in terms of actually building the high speed rail system.
Yesterday’s victory was an important political win for the high speed rail project, especially after nearly two years of a relentless and increasingly effective assault on the project from high speed rail opponents. But like the November 2008 victory at the ballot box, this win is just another step in a long process to get the project built. We learned after November 2008 that we HSR supporters cannot rest and simply assume that the project will go forward as planned. Opponents still have numerous opportunities to derail this, and will surely continue to try and destroy the still-strong public and political support for this project.
Remember what happened to HSR in Texas and Florida. In both states, HSR projects were killed by Republican governors as they approached the construction phase. In Florida, it happened twice, first with Jeb Bush in 2004 and again with Rick Scott in 2011. That risk is somewhat smaller in California today, but it is very much still there.
Let’s take a look at HSR’s political fortunes in more detail.
State Legislature – I think it’s safe to say that the moment of maximum danger has passed, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The biggest enemies of high speed rail in the Senate, Alan Lowenthal and Joe Simitian, will be termed out of the Senate this fall. Lowenthal is likely headed to Congress – more on that in a moment – and Simitian is going to join the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Mark DeSaulnier has one more term left in the Senate.
As yesterday’s vote revealed, however, the Senate should still be a source of worry. Leland Yee voted yes, but he still has concerns about the plan. As his Chief of Staff Adam Keigwin tweeted yesterday, “Senator Yee thinks it is a flawed plan and #CAHSR authority has a ways to go, but the benefits still out weigh the problems.” Other State Senators likely share these unspecified “concerns” and since the Authority’s funding is still dependent on the Legislature, those issues will continue to matter. However, most of the voter-approved bond money is now released, which reduces somewhat but by no means entirely the Legislature’s ability to monkey with the project.
Darrell Steinberg’s role in leading the HSR project to victory yesterday was essential, and he deserves a ton of credit for getting this done. Some on Twitter have compared him to Lyndon Johnson, the famed “Master of the Senate” in the way he rounded up enough votes. Steinberg is termed out in 2014, and it’s unclear who will take his place. My guess right now would be Mark Leno, but Leno himself will be termed out in 2016. Note that Prop 28, which allows for Senators to serve 12 years (three terms), does not apply to current legislators.
The Assembly was strongly supportive of HSR, and should continue to be as long as John A. Pérez is speaker. New State Senators are usually drawn from the ranks of the Assembly, so this should bode well for future votes in the Senate.
But there is a caveat here. This year’s elections are the first under the “top two” system adopted in 2010 with the passage of Prop 14. Over the last decade, the California Democratic caucus in Sacramento had become steadily more progressive. Prop 14 was an attempt to stop that and move the Democratic Party to the right. The most likely effect is that legislative elections will be fought between progressives and corporate-backed candidates, with conservative Republicans on the fringes (but potentially wielding the balance of power). What does that mean for the future composition of the legislature? Who knows. The November 2012 elections will help shed some light on this.
Combined with redistricting, the Legislature is facing significant upheaval this fall. That has already led to some surprising outcomes, with Senator Fran Pavley voting against HSR yesterday. Reports are that she voted no because of a tough race in her new, more Republican district in Ventura County. That’s not a good sign for the future, although the number of Senators facing such a situation is still pretty low and other Senators in swing seats voted yes.
It will help that Alan Lowenthal won’t be in the Senate to coordinate anti-HSR activity. And it helps that with the bulk of the bond funds being released, the Legislature’s future ability to screw with the project is limited. But political support for the project has to be shored up and expanded in Sacramento to prevent another close-run edge-of-the-seat moment like we saw yesterday.
Governor – Steinberg’s role on the Senate floor was crucial, but without Jerry Brown this vote almost certainly would have gone the other way. Meg Whitman would have defunded the project. Jerry Brown has been fighting to bring HSR to California for 30 years and was determined to get it done this time. His strong leadership is the biggest asset in California for the project, and that will continue as the project begins construction. Who knows who the Republicans will run for governor in 2014, but unless they have another massively popular movie star in the wings, I suspect Brown would be favored to win a fourth term. That bodes well for future HSR construction.
Congress – Had Democrats retained control of the House in 2010, the last 18 months would have looked very different for the HSR project. A Democratic Congress and the Obama Administration would surely have passed a transportation bill that included some sort of long-term high speed rail funding. Instead Republicans, led by a big Tea Party caucus, won the House in 2010 and promptly defunded HSR to the extent they could. That totally changed the discussion of HSR in California, as the expected substantial federal contribution suddenly evaporated. Of course, the Republicans could wind up holding the House for just two years, but the media now treats Republican control of the House as the natural condition of government and assumed that no HSR funding in 2011 and 2012 meant no more HSR funding from the feds ever. Instead of California HSR being flush with funding, money suddenly became tight, creating a big opening for anti-HSR forces to attack the project.
Yesterday’s victory doesn’t change that situation one bit, sadly. In fact, San Diego County Congressman Darrell Issa wasted no time pledging to investigate California HSR later this summer in an attempt to undermine the project. Freshman Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, representing the northern San Joaquin Valley, has been busy trying to find ways to take back the $3.3 billion in federal stimulus already awarded to California. If Republicans retain control of the House this fall, they’ll simply continue trying to defund the project, and will absolutely block any further federal funding.
If Democrats take back the House – and polls suggest it’s possible – then presumably long-term HSR funding will be on the agenda for 2013. Nancy Pelosi, the once and future Speaker, is a very strong supporter of California HSR and lobbied hard this past week to ensure the State Senate would pass the funding bill. House Democrats have been extremely supportive of federal HSR funding.
Similarly, US Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have been instrumental in helping the project move along. The rest of the Democratic caucus in the US Senate seems supportive, although Democrats will need to address the filibuster to stop Republicans there from blocking it and other stimulus efforts.
White House – Even with the passage of Prop 1A in November 2008, California HSR would have gone nowhere if Barack Obama had lost the presidential election to anti-rail John McCain. President Obama has been a strong supporter of HSR, putting $8 billion for it in the February 2009 stimulus bill and fighting hard to ensure the money is spent on HSR as intended. Along with Ray LaHood, the outstanding Transportation Secretary, the White House worked hard to protect California HSR funding. When the State Senate looked like they might reject the HSR funding proposal, LaHood and executive branch officials began lobbying State Senators to pass the bill, standing firm on their threat to take back all the $3.3 billion in stimulus if the State Senate tried to move it out of the Central Valley. If Democrats retake the House, we can expect the White House to continue pushing for long-term HSR funding.
But if President Obama loses the November election to Mitt Romney, we are screwed, at least until 2017. Romney is no fan of rail either, at least in his current incarnation as the Tea Party’s best friend. No future HSR funding would be likely from a Romney budget.
Public Opinion – The attacks on the project from opponents, especially since the beginning of 2011, have done damage to public support for the project, as recent polls have shown. The Republican takeover of the House is the key reason for this, as it allowed opponents to argue that HSR was an unfunded boondoggle. With long-term federal funds, that argument could never have taken hold. There’s a lot of work to be done to flip public opinion back to a majority.
Yesterday’s events in the State Senate did a lot to help that happen. It served as a rallying point for supporters and got a LOT of attention from Californians, especially on Twitter and Facebook as well as in the media. Supporters were able to make their arguments in favor of jobs, better transportation, energy independence, and doing something about global warming.
Going forward, advocates will need to work hard to mobilize people who share those values. As the monthly jobs reports continue to show stagnation, the jobs aspect of HSR becomes very important. So too does reminding voters of high gas prices and how HSR will solve that.
Much of the opposition to and criticism of HSR is rooted in austerity politics – the idea that in a recession, government should do less and not more. I don’t actually think most Californians share that view, but challenging it on a broad basis is important. We’ve seen austerity fail dramatically in Europe, and we saw how President Obama’s stimulus worked, small as it was. The battle over HSR is partly a battle over austerity versus stimulus. Stimulus has to win.
Additionally, doing what we can do further build the capacity of and provide resources for pro-HSR organizations such as Californians For High Speed Rail has to be a top priority.
Media – It will be interesting to see how the LA Times’ Ralph Vartabedian deals with HSR’s victory in the legislature. I’m sure he will continue to attack the project, and we’ll have to continue to push back on that. Overall, the last 18 months shows the need to work hard on showing reporters the need to report evenly and fairly on the project. Most reporters come to this beat with their ingrained bias against government spending and their belief, widespread in the profession, that government is to be treated skeptically and critics of government are to be treated heroically. Advocates ought to spend more time working on reporters to ensure that their stories do not simply posit government versus critics, but that advocates are given space and ink as well.
Lawsuits – Finally, we cannot ignore the courts. Opponents of the project are already flocking to the courts to try and block the project using any number of reasons as justification. That will slow down the project and add to its costs. Navigating that minefield will be crucial as we move forward.