When the California High Speed Rail bonds were on the ballot back in 2008, as Proposition 1A, were you on the winning side, voting “yes” along with 52.6 percent of the electorate?
Maybe you shouted “Wooh hooh!” when the result was announced?
Then you ought to hope the bonds are rejected by the state appellate court that holds a hearing on them tomorrow.
In the case to be heard Friday by the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento, the state is asking for a formal seal of approval – or “validation” – for $8.6 billion in High Speed Rail bonds, so the bonds can be sold without fear of future challenges to their legality.
More precisely, the state wants Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny to be reversed. It’s asking that he be ordered to do what he wouldn’t do when the issue was before him last year – give the bonds a judicial thumb’s up.
So, why should folks who supported the bonds at the polls in 2008 want the state to lose now – and Judge Kenny’s ruling against the bonds to stand?
Because it’s not clear that today’s “bullet train” project is the one that California voters “bought their tickets for” back in 2008. In fact, it isn’t clear the current plans amount to genuine “High Speed Rail” at all, after changes in project design and concept, and the Legislature’s shadowy appropriation plan for a big chunk of the bond proceeds.
What is clear is that state officials are fidgeting with impatience: They want the bond sale to happen – pronto – before awkward questions can be explored about the present plan’s fidelity to what voters were promised.
Should the state be allowed to speed this project past key checkpoints of accountability to the courts and the people?
Judge Kenny didn’t think so. He wouldn’t agree to serve as a compliant rubber stamp for the High Speed Rail finance committee that was charged with deciding to launch the bond-sale process. He wasn’t provided enough information and evidence to allow him to assess that panel’s decision-making process, even by the most lenient standard of review, so he declined to approve the bonds.
Beyond the need for at least some minimal judicial oversight of administrative actions, there is a constitutional argument for not letting the bond-sale locomotive leave the station.
The California Constitution’s “debt limit” or “voter approval guarantee” — Article XVI, Section 1 – requires that voters sign off on major state debt and the specific project it would fund.
Have voters said “yes” to the High Speed Rail project in its current form? As noted, it’s been significantly modified. Will the so-called “blended” design, which melds the project with existing commuter tracks in some urban areas, still allow trains to travel at “bullet” speeds, non-stop, between Los Angeles and the Bay Area? Even some of the project’s early boosters are skeptical.
And what about the $1.1 billion in bond funds that the Legislature has appropriated for projects in conjunction with local transportation agencies? Are these projects really about high speed rail, or will they fund a grab bag of goodies for commuter transit agencies and their patrons in the Legislature?
In their litigation to get the bonds validated, the state hasn’t even attempted to answer these questions. But under the California Constitution, mum cannot be the word on these crucial matters. The bonds must not be approved by the courts if it’s not shown that the proceeds will be used as originally advertised, so voters – and taxpayers – aren’t taken for a ride on a “bait and switch” express.
As one of the legal teams opposing validation in the case to be heard Friday, Pacific Legal Foundation represents the First Free Will Baptist Church of Bakersfield, which has litigated against the bonds from the beginning. All of its programs and ministries – including a school and outreach mission to the down-and-out, as well as the church itself – are threatened by the possibility that the route of the High Speed Rail project will be sited near the church’s property.
The church’s leadership and members are all California taxpayers who believe – as PLF’s brief argues — that massive spending projects like High Speed Rail must be pursued with accountability and compliance with the law and the Constitution.
Even Californians who voted “yes” on Prop. 1A – maybe especially those voters – must surely agree.