Governor Vetoes High-Speed Rail Oversight Bill

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Gov. Jerry Brown (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite a controversial change to the state’s high-speed rail plan, and mounting questions about the bullet train’s financing, Gov. Jerry Brown has rebuffed an effort to grant state lawmakers more oversight of the system.

On Wednesday, Brown vetoed a bill that would have added requirements to the information the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority has to share with the Legislature.

In his veto message, Brown said it was enough that he had already signed a bill earlier this year to increase the Legislature’s presence on the rail authority.

“As with other projects of this magnitude, state law requires strict standards of accountability and transparency,” Brown wrote. “I have every expectation that the Authority will meet these high standards.”

The bill vetoed Wednesday, AB 2847, authored by Asssemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), would have required that the High-Speed Rail Authority include information on the projected financing of each proposed segment of the system, in an attempt to track costs as segment routes change. In February, the authority announced it would build from the Central Valley north to San Jose, instead of the initially proposed route aimed south from Merced to the San Fernando Valley.

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“This is not just a veto of a bill. It is a veto of Governor Brown’s responsibility to the people and to the Legislature,” said Patterson in a statement. “Governor Brown is failing on a fundamental level on a project of huge significance, by giving a pass to an authority that thumbs its nose at the people of California with every change order and request for millions in extra cash.”

Patterson introduced the bill after a March report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office emphasized the role of the Assembly and Senate in keeping an eye on the system’s progress.

“The information provided by HSRA in the business plan and other documents can be difficult to compare over time,” the report stated. “The Legislature may want to consider defining specific segments of the system and requiring future business plans and other legislative reports to provide information on the cost and schedule of these fixed scopes of work."

Gov. Jerry Brown is surrounded by construction workers and elected officials after signing legislation authorizing initial construction of the high-speed rail line at Union Station on July 18, 2012 in Los Angeles.
Gov. Jerry Brown is surrounded by construction workers and elected officials after signing legislation authorizing initial construction of the high-speed rail line at Union Station on July 18, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

AB 2847 wouldn’t have given the Legislature any tangible power in mapping the future of the bullet train, but its unanimous passage in both the Senate and Assembly signaled renewed bipartisan interest in one of the governor’s signature projects.

“The bill is symbolic of any restraints or limits being put on the project,” says Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, which supported the bill. “This session has been really different from the previous session, where there really weren’t substantive hearings, there wasn’t any real legislation. The California Legislature is changing its view on this project, it’s changing what it sees as its role in oversight.”  

The earlier bullet train oversight bill, signed by Brown in July, was aimed at increasing communication between the authority and the Legislature. AB 1813, from Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Fairfield), added one member of the Assembly and one  state senator to the High-Speed Rail Authority’s Board of Directors in a nonvoting capacity.

Together, the bills seemed to signal a recognition among lawmakers that they will soon be forced to take the public reins of the project from Brown, especially since changes in term limit laws could keep some members in their current seats for another decade.

“While previously you would be out of there and on to your next gig, now people are going to be around to see how this project plays out, and people are getting a little nervous,” says Alexis. “They want to be able to say that they stood up for some transparency and some accountability and some oversight.”

High-speed rail is expected to remain in the sight of the Legislature come January, when lawmakers could begin debate on whether to extend the state’s cap-and-trade system beyond 2020.

The polluter marketplace is a financial lifeline for high-speed rail (which gets a quarter of yearly cap-and-trade revenue), but faces legal challenges and uncertain legislative support.