Have Term Limits Hurt High Speed Rail?
Lapsed blogger turned political writer David Dayen has a good article up at Politico this weekend on high speed rail as Jerry Brown’s legacy. When David called me to talk about the article we initially focused on the Sierra Club, Republican obstruction in Congress, and the long-term fortunes of the project. Brown was only part of our discussion.
But I’m not surprised that the final article focused on the governor. In fact, it makes perfect sense to do so. Jerry Brown has become the most prominent and most important champion of high speed rail in California. Criticism of the project doesn’t make him flinch, and he’s not the type to run and hide from something he likes just because some of his critics want to use it as a weapon. Since taking office Brown has reshaped the California High Speed Rail Authority board, acted to cut costs, helped the Authority address some of the organizational challenges it faced, and lately has been working to help fill the funding gap created by Tea Party Republicans, including those from the Central Valley.
And yet Brown is not blazing a new trail. Before Brown became the leading champion of HSR in California that job was held by his predecessor as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold’s support for HSR wasn’t always unwavering, but he was committed to the project. He got it onto the 2008 ballot and helped it navigate some treacherous waters in 2009-10. He worked with the Obama Administration to get as much federal funding as possible, and to get the project under way as quickly as possible.
What struck me about the Politico article was the absence of not only Schwarzenegger, but of state legislators and other organizational actors. Dayen was merely reflecting reality of Jerry Brown as the project champion, with the Legislature increasingly AWOL and the environmental community facing bizarre divisions over whether to embrace one of the greenest things this state has ever seen. Brown is so centrally identified with this project because unlike so many others in Sacramento, he still has a vision for this state’s future, and unlike many legislators, is not focused on the short-term.
Jerry Brown was the one who brought HSR to California 30 years ago. But it was the state legislature that revived it in the late 1990s after they had killed Brown’s plans in 1983. To understand why Brown is so central to HSR, we need to understand why the Legislature isn’t.
In 1996 Senators Quentin Kopp and Jim Costa introduced SB 1420, the High-Speed Rail Act. SB 1420 created the California High Speed Rail Authority with a four-year mandate to prepare a plan to build and operate high speed rail in California. Kopp and Costa appear to have intended for a funding plan to be placed before voters at the November 2000 election (where it surely would have passed, god what a missed opportunity that was). The bill passed both houses by wide margins – 30 to 4 in the Senate, 56-13 in the Assembly (where, ironically, future CHSRA Board chair Curt Pringle voted no).
In a Legislature without term limits, Kopp and Costa could have stayed in Sacramento a long time, helping to shepherd the project to completion, using their power and seniority to navigate whatever inevitable challenges were thrown its way. As it turned out, they were both able to do that, but not as State Senators. Senator Kopp became Judge Kopp, and then became chair of the CHSRA board. Senator Costa became Congressman Costa, and in Congress he was able to leverage his votes into federal dollars for HSR once Democrats reclaimed the White House and Congress in 2008. He’s still there, but in a House with a Tea Party majority, his ability to help the project is again limited.
New Senators were elected to replace those termed out starting in 1996, when Prop 140 took effect. Some of them turned out to be big backers of HSR. But none of them had been the ones to author SB 1420 or play big roles in getting it passed. In a term limited legislature, HSR got defenders and advocates through luck, not through tenure or experience. And when HSR did get those legislators, it was ephemeral.
A case in point is Fiona Ma. In 2008 she was crucial to getting the high speed rail bonds placed on the ballot. With fellow Assemblymember Cathleen Galgiani, she authored AB 3034 to answer criticisms from the Sierra Club and from Republicans, ensuring the project went before voters in a year that had seen record highs in gas prices. Fiona traveled the state stumping for the project and Prop 1A.
Since then, however, she has of necessity had to focus on her political career. She took on leadership positions in the Assembly, meaning she didn’t have as much time to focus on HSR. Elected in 2006, Ma knew she was going to be termed out in 2012. Like every other legislator, she had to find a new office. She ultimately settled on the Board of Equalization, where Betty Yee was being termed out of District 2. Ma is currently a candidate for that seat and likely to win it.
None of this is meant as a criticism of Ma. She was and remains a friend to the HSR project. But the political realities of a term limited legislature meant that she just couldn’t stay focused on it. And if she does get elected to the Board of Equalization, she won’t be in the Legislature to help it survive.
In 2012 Assemblymember Galgiani became Senator Galgiani, and she remains a backer of HSR. But she too is term limited and will be out of office in 2020. Fresno Assemblymember Henry T. Perea is a big HSR backer. But he was elected in 2010 and will be termed out of office just two years from now.
Term limits have gutted the Legislature’s ability to focus on the long term. In the 1950s and 1960s legislators did big things, creating a State Water Project, expanding higher education, creating Medi-Cal years before Medicaid and Medicare, and building freeways. They were able to defend these achievements during later struggles, particularly when Ronald Reagan was elected governor, in part because they were now politically and emotionally invested in them and wanted to ensure they survived.
For most legislators today, HSR is just another project at best. At worst it competes for some short-term priority they’d like to fund in order to use as a pole to vault them into another office. For every Galgiani and Perea are legislators who are inclined to like HSR and support it, but for whom it’s just not as high a priority. They weren’t there to create it, and won’t be there when it’s finished. Why should they care? (We can come up with numerous answers, but that’s a rhetorical queston.)
Voters finally reformed the term limits process in 2012, passing Prop 28. Legislators will now have 12 years total to serve, and they can split that between the Assembly and Senate however they like. But, and here’s the catch, anyone serving in the Legislature in 2012 when Prop 28 was passed are not eligible to enjoy its benefits. It’s not an ideal fix, but it was the one that the polls showed could pass.
Perhaps Prop 28 will allow a new generation of elected officials to have more time in the Legislature and, one hopes, to begin working on the long-term solutions to California’s many challenges. The short-term crisis of the late ’00s has passed, but those deeper issues remain. With more time in office, hopefully legislators will be more interested in shepherding long-term projects through.
There’s reason for hope. Prop 140, the proposition put on the November 1990 ballot by Southern California conservatives in hopes of finally removing Speaker Willie Brown from power, exempted anyone who had previously served as governor. They could come back and run for more terms if they wanted to. It’s a provision that Jerry Brown took advantage of in 2010 and will use again this year.
In short, the lack of term limits is what allows Jerry Brown to even have the chance at making HSR his legacy.