Board of Equalization member Betty Yee has changed her mind about the state’s controversial high-speed rail plan.
During the June primary campaign, the Democratic candidate for state controller opposed Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build a faster rail connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles by the year 2029.
A June 2014 primary questionnaire for the influential Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club asked Yee, “Do you support California’s high speed rail plans?”
Despite potential backlash from San Francisco’s largest Democratic club, Yee answered, “No.”
Yee now backs high-speed rail
Just when her rail opposition could pay off politically, Yee has changed her position for her tough general election contest against Republican Ashley Swearengin.
“While always supportive of the concept of high-speed rail, I was initially opposed to the project because of its governance and cost challenges,” said Yee, who barely beat out former Democratic Assembly Speaker John A. Perez for the second spot in the state controller runoff. “Since Gov. Brown directed the cap-and-trade funds to the project, I now support the project as it has the benefit of a funding source consistent with the goal of the project: reducing greenhouse gases.”
In June, state lawmakers acquiesced to the governor’s budget proposal to use $250 million in cap-and-trade program revenue for the state’s $68 billion bullet train. Although providing a short-term revenue boost, the one-time cash infusion is unlikely to solve the plan’s long-term financial problems.
CalWatchdog.com contributor Chris Reed, who has provided the state’s most comprehensive coverage of the high-speed rail project, has taken the California High-Speed Rail Authority to task for blatantly disregarding the “taxpayer protections” demanded by voters.
“Six years ago voters approved a referendum authorizing $9 billion in bonds for high-speed rail construction, including language with stringent ‘taxpayer protections,’” Reed recently wrote. “A California appellate court has effectively done away with both by ruling that the legal requirements of a bond measure approved by voters for the state’s bullet train are merely ‘guidance.’”
Political Inconvenience: Yee picks losing position in each campaign
Don’t blame Yee’s change of heart on political convenience. If anything, Yee has staked out the worst political position for each election.
In the June primary, Yee’s opposition to the state’s high-speed rail likely hurt her standing with some Democratic primary voters and activists, who largely support the governor’s legacy project. The Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, which supplied the questionnaire, ultimately endorsed Perez.
In the general election, Yee could have used the issue to differentiate herself from Swearengin, who supports the plan. A February Probolsky Research survey showed 54 percent of voters opposed to the plan. GOP gubernatorial nominee Neel Kashkari has made opposition to high-speed rail, which he dubs “Jerry Brown’s crazy train,” a central part of his campaign.
“Republicans remain confident that opposition to high-speed rail is a winning position — one that might shift the momentum in races across the state,” Real Clear Politics’ Adam O’Neal observed in July. “Politicians have ready answers and they tread carefully in this election year when discussing the state of the bullet train.”
Earlier this year, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat waiting in the wings for the 2018 governor’s race, publicly opposed the plan.
“I am not the only Democrat that feels this way. And I’ve got to tell you, I am one of the few that just said it publicly,” Newsom said in a February appearance on KTTH’s the Ben Shapiro Show. “Most are now saying it privately.”
“We were selling a $32 billion project then, and we were going to get roughly one-third from the federal government and the private sector,” Newsom added. “We’re not even close to the timeline [for the project], we’re not close to the total cost estimates, and the private sector money and the federal dollars are questionable.”
Swearengin supports high-speed rail
Yet, the state’s most ardent rail critics are unlikely to rush to support Yee’s controller opponent. The Republican mayor of Fresno has never changed her position: she’s a high-profile supporter of the state’s union-backed high-speed rail plan.
Her support for high-speed rail includes backing a highly controversial project labor agreement, or PLA, in the first segment of the project’s construction.
In 2013, the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction obtained documents through a public records request, which show that Swearengin “inexplicably played a pivotal role in seeking approval from the Obama administration for the union Project Labor Agreement on the first segment of California High-Speed Rail.”
“The Mayor of Fresno is orchestrating union control of it, without any oversight and accountability of the public,” Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said in a May 2013 press release. “The backroom wheeling and dealing that led to the union monopoly on California High-Speed Rail construction has remained a mystery up to this point. We were looking in the wrong place.”
“It was apparently the Fresno mayor and not the California High-Speed Rail Authority that was engineering this sweetheart deal,” he said.
High-Speed rail’s high-profile problems
Last year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority awarded a billion-dollar design-build contract to a joint venture headed by Tutor Perini Corporation. The contract, valued at approximately $985 million, was initially stalled in court.
In January, Brown asked the California Supreme Court for an expedited review – and reversal – of two lower court rulings that temporarily halted the high-speed rail project. Just three days prior to that request, Brown’s campaign accepted $27,200, the maximum campaign contribution, from Tutor Perini.
A controversial choice for the state’s high-speed rail project, Tutor Perini “had the lowest technical and safety rating of all the bidding companies, and the Authority board changed the rules to give Tutor the winning bid,” according to the Hanford Sentinel.