By Dan Walters
Published: Friday, Jul. 6, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 3A
Gov. Jerry Brown wants California voters to raise sales and income taxes to close a massive state budget deficit, but polls indicate that his chances are perhaps 50-50.
Brown also wants to begin building a statewide bullet train system. But the ballot measure that authorized $9.95 billion in bonds to finance the state’s bullet train share barely passed, and two statewide polls say that most voters now want to derail the project.
Most tellingly, a new statewide Field Poll also tells us that if the Legislature authorizes the first stage of bullet train construction, it would adversely affect Brown’s already iffy chances of gaining approval of new taxes.
That should worry him and fellow Democrats in the Legislature. If they forge ahead on both fronts they could lose both because even if legislators approve bullet train funds, it faces many financial and legal hurdles.
The poll didn’t deter the Assembly from approving initial funding for the bullet train Thursday, but the outcome was never in doubt in that house, whose members tend to march in lockstep with their leaders.
The Senate, which is due to vote today, is another matter.
Even before the poll was released, Brown and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg were having difficulty getting 21 Democratic senators to commit.
They felt compelled to load up the legislation with a couple of billion extra dollars in local transportation spending – such as a very controversial subway in San Francisco – in an obvious effort to sway fence-sitting senators. Steinberg released a chart showing exactly how the extra spending would affect individual senators’ districts.
Dan Richard, a Brown adviser who chairs the High-Speed Rail Authority, even changed the project’s moniker to “an integrated rail modernization program” to fold in the local spending, calling it “a smarter way to get there.”
Nevertheless, Senate passage is still uncertain – perhaps more so, because of the Field Poll’s findings that Brown’s taxes are already shaky and that 31 percent of likely voters would be less willing to support them if the bullet train rolls ahead, including 21 percent of current tax supporters.
Even were the Senate to vote for the bullet train, it still faces many barriers, including whether it could achieve the 160-minute running time between San Francisco and Los Angeles that the ballot measure requires, or achieve environmental clearances in time to meet a federal construction deadline.
Bullet train opponents, especially those in the path of the initial 130-mile San Joaquin Valley segment, are ready to pursue lawsuits challenging the project on environmental impact grounds. Brown has toyed publicly with the notion of exempting it from such challenges but backed away for now due to opposition from environmental groups.
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