If attendance at last week's state budget town hall meeting in Concord was any barometer, Californians are as happy as a dog with a bone over what Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed. Fewer than three dozen people came to hear state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, talk about projected revenues, expenditures and reserves for the next fiscal year, and most of the questions he fielded had nothing to with what taxes are going for.
One person asked if desalinization might solve water-shortage woes (not at its current cost). Another wondered why some residents elsewhere receive their water unmetered (that's being corrected, DeSaulnier said). Subject matter drifted as far afield as Leland Yee, the state senator under federal indictment, and the ramifications of climate change on residential developments.
Doesn't anybody care about the state budget?
"When I did these hearings back when we were cutting expenses, most of the questions were on the budget," DeSaulnier said. "There were questions on what our priorities were. It's the nature of this business. People speak up when there's a crisis."
That's not to say there are no fights looming in Sacramento. One of the biggest involves the governor's legacy project: high-speed rail. DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said the $68 billion elephant in the room is funding -- and $68 billion probably is an underestimate.
"Professor (William) Ibbs of UC Berkeley is one of several experts we've consulted about megaprojects like this," DeSaulnier said. "They told us, on average, their cost is four times what engineers estimate, and that high-speed rail and tunnels are the worst. If you take that methodology and apply it to $68 billion, you can do the math."
Or, you can look at the final tab for the Bay Bridge -- six times the original estimate.
For now, the bullet train is in limbo, awaiting an appeal of a Sacramento County Superior Court judge's ruling that the High Speed Rail Authority violated the 2008 statewide initiative authorizing $10 billion in high-speed rail bonds. Before those can be issued, the judge said, officials must explain how they plan to finance the project.
"They haven't," DeSaulnier said. "At first, they said local government will put into it. Then they said it would come from the private sector. The federal government isn't going to do it, and the state doesn't have enough money to maintain its current infrastructure."
The newest run-it-up-the-flagpole plan, proposed by Brown, is to siphon $250 million a year from the state's cap-and-trade program -- funds earmarked for greenhouse gas reductions. To sell this idea to the Legislature, the governor will need his best tap-dancing shoes.
DeSaulnier, who voted against issuing bonds and likely will vote against the cap-and-trade scheme, said the costly high-speed rail project has overshadowed a better idea: incrementally improving the current rail system. Instead of reaching for the unreachable, he said, California should upgrade what it has.
"If you did what the Japanese did," he said, "you'd fill in the gaps, so you could get from Oakland to L.A. by Amtrak. Then you'd upgrade things for the next 30 years and add connectivity with commuter rail."
Brown's pursuit of a grander project is unsurprising, DeSaulnier said, because a governor should be a visionary. "I just think the application is wrong this time."
But, on the bright side, people seem to love his budget.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.