High-Speed Train

Gov. Jerry Brown’s $68 billion high speed rail project could be forced to go before voters again for approval if Proposition 53 passes.

By Paul Rogers | progers@bayareanewsgroup.com
Published: October 18, 2016 at 1:56 pm |
Updated: October 19, 2016 at 6:36 am

With less than three weeks until Election Day, Gov. Jerry Brown and his political allies are suddenly pumping money into the campaign to defeat Proposition 53, a previously low-profile measure that could be the death knell of Brown’s high-speed rail and Delta tunnels projects.

In the past week, Brown, labor unions, Indian tribes and Silicon Valley venture capitalists have contributed $7 million to kill the measure, tripling the size of the opposition’s treasury. If passed, Proposition 53 would require a statewide vote to approve any state project costing more than $2 billion that is financed with revenue bonds, which are the likely method of paying many of the costs for high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels.

On Oct. 6, Brown contributed $1.7 million in unspent money from his 2014 re-election campaign to No on 53. On Friday, he donated another $2.4 million, boosting the No campaign’s total war chest to $10.9 million, more than twice what the Yes campaign has raised.

“We are confident that when California voters get the facts, they’ll vote no,” said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for the No on 53 campaign. “With 17 measures on the ballot and the headline-grabbing presidential election, it takes a lot of resources to break through the noise.”

Some observers say the infusion of cash shows that Brown — and labor unions in particular who want the jobs from large public works projects like high-speed rail — are getting nervous.

“It’s last-minute. They’re worrying this thing will pass,” said Shaun Bowler, associate dean of political science at UC Riverside.

No major public polling operation has released a poll on Proposition 53. But sources in the Yes on 53 campaign say their internal polling shows the measure leading by 51-28 percent, with nearly a quarter of voters still undecided.

Maviglio said he would not disclose internal poll results from the No campaign.

But he said they show that support has dipped in the past few weeks since opponents began running TV ads in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, Central Valley and Sacramento areas. The ads show a firefighter warning that the measure could allow people in regions outside their own to decide the fate of large local projects like highways and dams. It ends with computer simulations showing the major city in each region on fire after a large earthquake, warning that “when the big one hits, critical road and hospital repairs could be delayed years.”

Supporters of the measure say those concerns are misleading and that they like their chances. That’s because the measure is third on the crowded state ballot, not buried at the bottom. Its ballot description is written in clear language that begins: “Requires statewide voter approval” for government spending.

“We’re feeling pretty good,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has endorsed Proposition 53. “The voter label actually mentions ‘voter approval,’ and from our experience with other initiatives, people like the notion that they get to approve major fiscal decisions.”

All of the $4.6 million that the Yes on 53 campaign has raised comes from Stockton farmer and businessman Dean Cortopassi and his wife, Joan.

Cortopassi, 79, is a longtime critic of government debt, the Delta tunnels project and the cost overruns that plagued the rebuilding of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. He said he has no plans to donate money for TV ads, but is watching the other side carefully.

“Knowing that Californians are concerned about rampant state debt,” he said, “the panicked opposition is throwing millions into a TV campaign full of lies about Prop. 53 because it will take away their power to issue blank checks.”

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