Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Brown must show the money for two big projects

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Once in a while, a line of movie dialogue becomes a cultural icon, and it happened in 1996’s “Jerry Maguire” when actor Cuba Gooding Jr., playing a talented athlete, told his agent (Tom Cruise) to “show me the money.”

It neatly captures the financial squeeze facing two big public works projects that Gov. Jerry Brown wants – drilling twin water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and building a bullet train, together likely well over $100 billion.

Brown needs enforceable pledges from big water agencies to pay for tunnel construction, plus federal funds and a multibillion-dollar state bond for habitat restoration and other aspects.

The bond issue is entangled in Capitol politics because all stakeholders in the controversial project understand its pivotal role, federal money is uncertain, and there’s no take-it-to-the-bank commitment from water agencies yet, because the tunnels would cost $14 billion, but produce little additional water.

Jeff Michael, a University of the Pacific economist, says that any new water would cost San Joaquin Valley farmers between $500 and $2,500 an acre-foot (326,000 gallons), many times the $150 cost now.

Financing the bullet train – currently tabbed at $68 billion – is even less certain.

The state has a $9 billion state bond authorization from voters and a few billion more from the federal government for a short initial stretch in the San Joaquin Valley. But a Sacramento judge has sided with opponents’ contention that the “business plan” doesn’t adequately lay out future financing, and the legal cloud has stalled bond sales.

The state was to begin putting up its match for federal money this spring but cannot do it with the bond freeze. Now the feds are giving the state until July, apparently hoping that the Legislature will approve Brown’s budget request for $250 million from “cap-and-trade” fees on business for the bullet train.

Brown also wants a permanent stream of fee money. However, business groups are challenging the fees in court, saying they are taxes that should be approved by the Legislature, and the Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, questions the legality of using them for the bullet train.

Meanwhile, the governor is asking appellate courts to overturn the local court rulings – arguing, in effect, that the courts have no power to review a legislative/administrative decision to spend bond money.

Asking courts to limit their authority smacks of desperation to get financing – or perhaps is a sneaky way of shifting the onus for killing an increasingly unpopular project onto judges.

Nevertheless, Brown’s stubborn advocacy of a project with shaky finances would seem to violate his own maxim, repeated on national television Sunday, to “be tough on spending. No matter how liberal you want to be fiscal discipline is the fundamental predicate of a free society.”