Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thinking Ahead - Two Commendable CA Budget Outcomes

The details of California's budget compromise are just coming to light, and I have heard good news on two fronts. Both demonstrate some laudable long term thinking by our State legislators. I thought I would share the details of these two compromises, as I have been informed about them.

First, a college on whose board I serve reports that Cal Grants, which provide scholarship money for college students who need some financial help, will not be cut (or even eliminated) as had been anticipated in this year's budget. This is of course a relief to colleges that would have either had to spend some of their already diminished endowment money to make up the difference, or cut back on accepting qualified but less financially capable students.

Since education is at the core of California's ability to innovate and solve its problems, cutting back education is cannibalizing the State's future capacity for a vibrant economy, and is truly short-sighted. The cuts that are taking place in the state university and college system are bad enough without eliminating the assistance that supports capable students across both private and public educational institutions.

Just as important, especially for Northern California, the planned high-speed rail system connecting the Bay Area with Southern California will proceed on schedule. A back-door effort to derail the system's planned route down the peninsula south of San Francisco through San Jose, by sending the State's High Speed Rail Authority back to re-study other possible routes, was foiled in the final budget compromise.

The story of this imbroglio has been to some degree reported in the press, but here is perhaps a slightly more detailed version. After extensive study, the northern California route for the system was approved last year, and our region was allocated a first traunch of the $10 billion in state bond money provided through last November's Prop 1A High Speed Rail ballot initiative, AND at least $1.3 billion in federal stimulus money to match and augment the state funds. All of this would go to design, engineering, technology and construction jobs in the Bay Area, and the spillover economic activity that provides throughout the community - which we very much need right now.

But a few residents of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto decided that they didn't want this system running down the CalTrain corridor near their homes. Never mind that their cities had endorsed it last fall, or that part of the project would improve CalTrain including converting it from diesel to electric and putting its grade crossings under ground, making the system quieter and less polluting. This is the same kind of thinking that ensured, back in the 1970s, that BART did not serve the peninsula and South Bay as it does the East Bay.

So just before the 4th of July, someone slipped the directive to restudy the routes in Northern CA into the budget bill, in the closed-door conference committee in Sacramento. No state legislators or their staffs acknowledge being the source of this provision. Had this stayed in the budget bill, the State would have had to go back to restudy the route, delaying the project for at least a year, and in the process losing Northern California's place as first in line to receive bond funds and stimulus money - probably putting the section of the High Speed Rail system from Anaheim to LA in Southern California ahead of us in line to receive the funding. And of course, the jobs and economic benefits would move south right along with the project.

It took an incredible amount of effort rallying HSR supporters and a letter signed by every member of the Bay Area state legislative delegation to get this killer provision out of the budget bill, and it worked. Now it's High Speed Rail (and economic stimulus) for Northern California - full speed ahead!

Of late, one of the elements most lacking in our political process is the ability of our leaders to take actions that will produce desired results in the long-term. If we undercut our own capacities by not building infrastructure and not adequately educating our population, then we are definitely shooting ourselves in the foot, inhibiting our own progress.

I see both of these outcomes as good for the public interest. I commend both our state legislators, and Governor Schwarzenegger, who when he is allowed to do so, provides excellent leadership for the state, for these outcomes.

--Gloria Duffy


valentir said...

Has the Commonwealth Club taken a position on HSR peninsula routing or is this Ms. Duffy's personal opinion? If the latter, I think the distinction be made clear.

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