passed the state’s annual budget before the fiscal year-end deadline.
The state’s elected leaders faced the daunting task of bridging a $16 billion budget gap, but the legislators ultimately showed courageous and determined leadership, navigating their way through a multitude of ugly dilemmas and gut-wrenching decisions to get the job done.
After such a show of sound governance, why then did they decide last week to do something as fiscally irresponsible as authorizing the allocation of $8 billion to build the first segment of track for the state’s proposed high-speed rail project?
The mammoth project, which would be the first of its kind in the U.S., is intended to connect Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento by bullet trains capable of reaching speeds of 220 mph. Additionally, the construction of the system would lead to the creation of thousands of jobs, and high-speed rail would alleviate some of the existing pressure on an already aging transportation infrastructure.
Proponents compare the building of a statewide high-speed rail system to the advent of the once revolutionary and now essential interstate highway system, and they argue that government is the only entity big enough to take on such an ambitious endeavor.
All true, but we simply can’t afford it and we should stop before we invest any more money.
Since Californians initially voted in 2008 to approve $10 billion in bonds to partially fund the project, the notion of a high-speed rail system has become increasingly controversial and even more costly.
In 2008, the project carried an estimated price tag of $33 billion and had an estimated completion date of 2020. Today, estimates put the cost of the system at $68 billion, with the estimated completion date pushed back to 2028.
It’s true that the federal government will subsidize $3 billion of the cost. Add to that the $10 billion in bonds already approved by voters in 2008, and we’re still left with a $55 billion gap, which no definitive plan exists to cover.
Consider some of the measures the California legislature was forced to take to cover the $16 billion annual budget gap they just closed in late June.
• New limitations on welfare and social services
• Cutbacks that impact education and community colleges
• Reductions in the number of parents and kids eligible for subsidized childcare
Additionally, California’s prison system is so underfunded and overcrowded that the state was forced to relocate some prisoners to local jails and send others to facilities out-of-state.
Even with social services cutbacks, various downsizing, and prison reform, there will still only be enough money to close the $16 billion budget gap if voters approve a November ballot proposal that raises income taxes on some Californians and increases the state’s sales tax by .25% for everyone.
Opponents of the high-speed rail project have been labeled as shortsighted conservatives who lack vision, but the vote for last week’s $8 billion dollar appropriation, which barely passed in the senate by a margin of 21-16, included four Democrats among the naysayers. Senator Joe Simitian (D - Palo Alto), historically a high-speed rail supporter but one of the Democrats who opposed the current project, summed up the opposition best. “This is the wrong plan,” he said, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Proponents of this high-speed rail plan argue that California must invest in its future, but investments that are made with borrowed money must be thoughtfully considered.
Jerry Brown, no doubt, hopes to be remembered as an idealistic and inspiring, albeit practical, governor of California. Though responsible budgets are not as sexy or as visionary as the launch of a high-speed rail system, bringing fiscal discipline to California government is what the state needs most, and it's a monumental accomplishment that should be legacy enough.
This article was originally published on examiner.com