04/19/2012 05:00 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2012

The Persistence of Tunnel Vision: Another Problem for Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown has a number of problems to deal with in his new/renewed governorship. One of the biggest of all is a persistent tunnel vision in California's frequently dysfunctional political culture.

Unfortunately, it's a problem that afflicts both political parties and most interests, as well as their adherents, acknowledged and otherwise, in the media.

Following a negative report from the Legislative Analyst Office, Brown's new high-speed rail chief, Dan Richard, testified Wednesday before a pair of legislative committees holding hearings on the project's proposed start later this year.

Richard, former president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system board, noted that most big transit projects are not funded in full in advance.

The project has some $3.3 billion in federal funds from the Obama Administration and some $10 billion in approved bond funding, more than enough to make a strong start on the long-range project.

The LAO report -- which is very brief, mostly consisting of a reiteration of the project with maps and charts -- urges that the legislature not move forward with major construction activities until the project's entire funding is assured. Since this is a project that will take decades to do, and this is an old objection, the report seems fairly superfluous.

It makes the mistake of assuming that a reactionary Congress will be in place for decades to come. When in reality it was just a few years ago that major federal funds were enacted to fund the first phase of the program.

Had the 2010 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives gone differently, the objection would not exist.

Brian Weatherford, author of the LAO report, complained that legislators are asked to move the project forward "while some of the details still aren't worked out, which increases the risk."

Richard pointed out that the report only talks about uncertainties with the rail plan and neglects the fact that highways and airports would otherwise have to be expanded.

"There is a risk that what we have to do to maintain mobility will cost more. I only ask that we balance those risks," he said.

The LAO report makes the obvious mistake of proceeding from the premise that a reactionary Congress will be in place for decades to come.

It's only the advent of the Republican House in elections held little more than a year ago that put a serious crimp in federal support for the project. But since then, Tea Party Republicans and their allies in the old energy economy -- and let's be blunt, the order should be reversed because old energy economy interests have hard right Republicans fronting for them at every turn -- have shot down the Obama Administration's high-speed rail projects everywhere but California.

This is a struggle that has taken place, on and off, for decades, as the rest of the advanced industrial world moved ahead with rail. The same sorts of folks hitting Brown now on high-speed rail hit him during his first governorship for being a "Moonbeam" by pushing renewable energy.

Actually, and quite ironically, you don't have to look much farther than the crowning infrastructural achievement of the old energy economy to see what Richard is talking about.

That's the Interstate Highway System, naturally. The advent of freeway-oriented transit was key for killing off the rail approach and for driving sprawl development patterns.

But it was originally supposed to be completed in 12 years. In the end, it took three times as long, at five times the cost projected in 1956 when the massive project began.

President Dwight Eisenhower had wanted to finance the project with bonds paid off from the proceeds of gasoline taxes, which had gone directly to the treasury. Congress instead decided to go with a pay-as-you-go approach.


The point being that the course of infrastructure development frequently does not run very smoothly.

The report is also short-term in its orientation in questioning whether revenues from AB 32's greenhouse gas cap-and-trade market can be used to fund high-speed rail because it ignores the fact that sustaining a shift away from the old energy economy, needed to keep greenhouse gas emissions down, requires just this sort of project even if the benefits won't come immediately.

But it's not just people pushing perspectives which benefit the entrenched interests of oil, car, and airline companies who suffer from tunnel vision.

Brown, speaking Tuesday at a California Medical Association legislative conference, said that he expects the state's budget deficit to be a billion or more higher next month than the $9 billion he projected it at in his January budget proposal. Less money is coming in and more money is being spent than forecast.

And legislative Democrats balk, as they have so hopefully for years now -- with Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis before him -- at his latest budget cuts.

Instead, they choose to delay to see if things magically get better. But wishing for more revenue will not make it happen, and delaying cuts makes them worse.

This has been going on for a decade now, though legislative Democrats have shown themselves far more reality-oriented than legislative Republicans by undertaking necessary cuts on several occasions.

I remember talking with then Assembly Budget Committee chair Jenny Oropeza a decade ago. She insisted that Republicans -- some of whose votes were needed to meet California's unusual two-thirds vote requirement for new revenues (only a majority is needed for tax cuts and special breaks, of which there have been many) -- would go along with a tax hike to avoid cuts she didn't want to make in the aftermath of expanding spending during the dot-com boom-turned-bust.

Why would they go along? They would have to, she insisted.

But they didn't. Magical thinking did not suffice and the state's structural deficit grew.

Help will be on the way when and if Brown's revenue initiative passes in November. But between now and then, more cuts are inevitable.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

William Bradley Huffington Post Archive