Gov. Jerry Brown has pursued two multibillion-dollar water and high-speed rail projects so aggressively in recent months that it loomed conspicuously how carefully he stepped to avoid the projects in his biggest speech of the year.
Brown mentioned the $68 billion rail program only once in his State of the State address this week, saying “we’re building the nation’s only high-speed rail.” He gave equally little air to his plan to build two tunnels to divert water around the Delta.
The absence of a forceful defense of either project was a departure from previous speeches, suggesting Brown’s wariness of controversy in an election year. Public opinion has turned against high-speed rail since voters approved it in 2008, and Brown acknowledged days before his address that an ongoing drought has accentuated regional tensions over water.
But Brown’s skirting of the tunnels and rail projects, two priorities of his administration, also highlights the shifting field on which the Democratic governor is seeking to push his public works agenda. After securing the Legislature’s authorization for initial construction of the rail project in the Central Valley in 2012, Brown’s problems have mainly shifted to Congress and the courts.
His water plan is to be financed by water users and permitted administratively by state and federal officials. Needing no public vote on the projects – and with his re-election campaign on the horizon – Brown could see little reason to engage.
“If he had his way, he wouldn’t have given the speech at all,” said Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide. “He wants this to be a nothing election. He’s running up against two people who nobody’s ever heard of. There is no sign of any political fever in California at all.”
Brown’s speech to a joint session of the Legislature, lasting 17 minutes, was shorter than his offering last year. Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said “Certainly the governor didn’t languish on the podium,” and lawmakers took note of all he left out.
Brown, who is preparing for a likely re-election bid this year, focused his speech on fiscal restraint, and Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, said “That’s hard to talk about when you have a train that may be costing 10 times what the voters approved.”
The Legislature has proved a similarly difficult audience for Brown on water policy. Last year, a handful of lawmakers, including some Democrats, issued terse statements critical of the water project after Brown heralded the plan in plain terms.
“My proposed plan is two tunnels 30 miles long and 40 feet wide, designed to improve the ecology of the Delta, with almost 100 square miles of habitat restoration,” Brown said at the time. “Yes, that’s big. But so is the problem.”
A year later, Brown referred to the project only by its technical name, calling for “further progress on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.”
Nor did Brown state a position on an $11.1 billion water bond scheduled for the November ballot.
The bond, which the Legislature has twice deferred, is likely to be rewritten to reduce its cost, if not put off again. Brown has been noncommittal, voicing only general support for “expanded storage and serious groundwater management,” among other water infrastructure improvements.
Negotiations over the bond are potentially perilous for Brown. While a governor preaching moderation might view a multibillion-dollar debt measure as unwelcome company on his re-election ballot, the drought has heightened calls for dams and other infrastructure.
Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University, said that three months ago, before Brown’s declaration of a drought emergency, “I would say, yeah, he wants to hold off.”
Now, Gerston said, “The environment may dictate otherwise. This state has a critical problem. I think the sense is that we can’t sit back and let nature take its course.”
Brown said Thursday that “I certainly am going to deal with the water and the tunnels and the high-speed rail,” but he acknowledged the purpose of downplaying them in his speech.
“I didn’t want to detract from the simple message that we’ve had a decade of deficits, and going forward the most important thing to do is to live within our means,” he told reporters in Salinas. “You can only say too many things. And when you write your stories I didn’t want you to say, ‘Today Brown said 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.’ No, I only wanted you to say one thing: ‘Brown said live within your means.’ ”
Brown will soon be forced to re-engage on water and rail.
He has said the state may consider mandatory water restrictions if the drought persists, while legal challenges continue to beleaguer high-speed rail. A Sacramento Superior Court judge ordered the California High-Speed Rail Authority in November to rescind its original funding plan, ruling officials failed to comply with provisions of Proposition 1A, the initiative in which voters approved initial funding for the project.
Brown is seeking lawmakers’ approval to use $250 million in fees paid by carbon producers to help finance the rail project, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said, “There are some real important questions that need to be asked and will be asked this legislative session” about the project’s funding.
In his State of the State address last year, Brown acknowledged adversity facing the rail initiative and likened it to “The Little Engine That Could.”
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” he said. “And over the mountain the little engine went. We’re going to get over that mountain.”
Following his speech this week, Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare said, “There was no mention of the little engine from last year.”