Watching the Train Wreck

As most Californians know by now the California Legislature has just approved spending billions of dollars on what will surely prove to be the most costly boondoggle in American history. So much has been written about High Speed Rail (HSR)in the last three days — much of it very very good — that one would think that there is little to add.

Nonetheless from the perspective of taxpayer advocates a number of points need to be made.

First the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association ran the unsuccessful campaign against the original Prop 1A (HSR) in 2008 the same election that put Barack Obama in the White House. As usual grassroots taxpayers were woefully outspent in that effort. Nonetheless the vote was surprisingly close given the decidedly liberal tilt of that election cycle.

Second the ballot materials presented to the voters in 2008 were a fraud. Indeed in a lawsuit brought by HJTA the Court of Appeal ruled that the fact that the Legislature by statute dictated the contents of the so-called “objective” analysis in the ballot pamphlet was a violation of the California’s Political Reform Act. While we’re proud of that legal win it was a Pyrrhic victory at best. You see while the deceptive practice of the Legislature’s manipulation of the ballot material was enjoined we could not overturn the results of the close election.

As we now know through multiple polls had California voters been told that truth about High Speed Rail it would have failed.

Third although the debate on Friday in the California Senate was sharply divided on party lines — Republicans against Democrats mostly for — we at HJTA were struck by the compelling arguments made by the three Democrat Senators who spoke against the measure. As a non-partisan organization — about a third of our 200000 members are Democrats — we nonetheless recognize that on fiscal issues the Republicans are usually head and shoulders above their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. (In the debate they covered all the flaws in the current HSR plan with typical proficiency).

Nonetheless these three surprised us by bucking their party’s leadership and taking a stance against powerful special interests. If anyone in America doubts that appropriating a single dollar to High Speed Rail in California is an abject waste of money we commend for your viewing the floor speeches by the Senate democrats who eviscerated the HSR plan. Even more notable is that most had previously been staunch supporters of HSR. While it can be argued that their new-found fiscal restraint is based more on politics — two are in tough election fights in November — the points they made were logical and persuasive.

Fourth is the issue of debt. Even if the high speed rail project were never built our current budget is a train wreck in its own right. Massive debt overspending and lack of reforms have rendered California virtually ungovernable. How any legislator who supported this massive expenditure of taxpayer funds can look their children or grandchildren in the eye is beyond us. We have just handed future generations a bill that in all likelihood they will be unable to pay.

Fifth there has been a great deal of discussion surrounding the impact that approval of high speed rail would have on Governor Brown’s proposed tax hike in November. Indeed the Field Poll itself last week noted that “support for the Governor’s initiative would be adversely affected if the legislature funds the high-speed rail project.”

In theory those of us who will be leading the campaign against Brown’s tax hike should be glad that he and his tax-and-spend liberal allies have just handed us Exhibit A in our argument that Sacramento’s perverse spending priorities provide more than sufficient justification to reject higher taxes. But the truth is different. Those of us who love California and want our children to stay here instead of moving to states where there are more bountiful opportunities were hoping against hope that our elected leadership would not waste billions of dollars in such a cavalier manner as they did on Friday.

Yes we will use the monumental waste of precious taxpayer dollars on HSR as part of our campaign against the tax hikes. But talk about your Pyrrhic victory. Even assuming — as we all do — that Californians will reject the tax hikes (after all they’ve rejected the last eight successive tax increase proposals) we’ll still be wasting billions on a train that even if it were built few people will ride.

To conclude the best observation regarding Friday’s infamous vote on the floor of the California Senate came from a Twitter commentator who simply said “high speed rail is California’s rejoinder to people who think we couldn’t possibly be governed more incompetently.”

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.