Five years after voters approved Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure, attorneys spent Friday morning arguing whether plans for the train system comply with the law.
Lawyers for Kings County and two of its residents are convinced that a financing plan delivered to the state Legislature in November 2011 fails to live up to the ballot measure's provisions.
They are asking Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny to rule that the plan, and the Legislature's subsequent approval of money to begin construction, are invalid.
Lawyers with the state attorney general's office, representing the California High-Speed Rail Authority, argued vigorously that the funding plan is legal, and said that just because the plaintiffs are not satisfied is no reason to order a costly and time-consuming do-over. The judge has 90 days to rule.
At the root of the lawsuit, filed in late 2011 by Hanford farmer John Tos, homeowner Aaron Fukuda and the Kings County Board of Supervisors, is whether language in Proposition 1A intended a detailed funding plan to represent a promise to voters, or whether the plan was merely one of several required reports intended to guide the Legislature in approving or denying funds for the project.
Also at issue is a requirement for the authority to have all of the necessary environmental approvals before construction commences.
"When voters see something on a ballot, it means what it says," said Stuart Flashman, one of two attorneys representing the Kings County plaintiffs. "A bond measure is a contract between the agency and the voters."
The lawsuit represents a potentially serious obstacle for the rail authority. The board expects next week to authorize a billion-dollar contract to design and build the first section of construction on the statewide system, a 29-mile stretch from the northeastern outskirts of Madera to the southern edge of Fresno.
If Kenny were to rule for the plaintiffs by declaring the 2011 funding plan invalid, it could have the effect of nullifying the Legislature's vote last summer. Lawmakers relied on the plan to allocate more than $2.6 billion of Proposition 1A bond money and $3.4 billion in federal funds.
Flashman, the plantiffs' attorney, said the law requires the funding plan to specify where the authority would get all of the money needed to build its "initial operating segment" from Merced to the San Fernando Valley. He argued that the plan falls short because it does not identify any realistic source of funds beyond the $6 billion available to build the 130-mile stretch from Madera to Bakersfield.
Michelle Inan, a deputy with the state attorney general's office, responded that the funding plan "was for the benefit of the Legislature," not a guarantee to voters.
"The authority had a duty to submit the funding plan, and it did that. It had a duty to provide the information requested in the statute, and it did that," she said. "The plaintiffs' complaint is about the quality of the information. They don't think it satisfies the requirement. But that was a decision for the Legislature to decide, and it decided."