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I’ve written several articles over the years critical of California’s high-speed rail debacle. The last one was in November 2017. I suggested that gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom might come to his senses and end the project. After all, he was once against it, but flipped lest he alienate his union supporters in the primary.

The election behind him, he did just that.

Sort of.

While effectively cancelling the biggest and most costly segments, he left the 150 mile Bakersfield to Merced connection untouched. Whether there will be enough funding to complete even that remains to be seen given the history of cost overruns and unreliable estimates.

I really do not think he cares. It is just to soften the blow to the project’s misguided fans and political allies who would have benefited from the money pit it was destined to become from the start. Governor Newsom will not be in office when even this segment hits the wall.

But let’s say it is completed.

There is yet another obstacle.

Proposition 1A stipulated that there could be no government operating subsidy- federal, state or local; the train has to run in the black. One has to question whether there is enough of a market in the Central Valley to generate asequate revenue to cover the fixed costs, not to mention the marginal costs. It is not as if fares can be raised willy-nilly to close losses. There is an inverse relationship between ridership and fares.

So what will happen when the train cannot legally operate?

A federal bailout?

Regardless of who controls Congress years from now, the taxpayers in the other 49 states will not be receptive to propping up the product of California’s recklessness. They have their infrastructure priorities, too.

Before Newsom fully commits to the Central Valley line, he should engage reputable analysts free from political influence to fully understand the market there. Up until now, the focus has been on the ridership from each of the end points – The Bay Area and Metro L A.

CAHSR is now a short line with a different set of demographics driving it.

Don’t let politics get in the way.

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I yearn for the days when I covered the CD2 special election back in 2009, one that pitted three insiders against seven average citizens.  I attended almost every forum (there were at least a dozen) and provided the most comprehensive coverage of any outlet.

The seven grassroots candidates were instrumental in forcing a runoff; unfortunately, the top two finishers were insiders.  At least the two had to dig deep in their pockets in what was one of the most expensive council races in the city’s history.

In recent years, I have traveled extensively for business reasons.  I miss attending the forums; I miss writing about them even more.

Measure S is the headliner of this year’s ballot; the citywide races offer little drama, although it would be worthwhile for voters to consider an alternative to Eric Garcetti, whose promises of DWP reform and fiscal responsibility have fallen well short of what is needed to support sustainable services.

Measure S pits democracy against plutocracy.  Either we have a city where the residents have a say in the shape and structure of development, or planning is left in the hands of wealthy developers and their proxies in City Hall – a plutocracy only Vladimir Putin could embrace. Their funding of the opposition to S amounts to the financial equivalent of hacking the election.

If you want planning that facilitates community-wide needs and desires, vote Yes on S. We must stop straining our already over-burdened infrastructure any further, curtail the growing traffic on our streets and prevent mini-Manhattans from dominating the landscape. We want growth to be the result of smart planning – within our capacity to manage and control its effects.

The one council race I have watched from afar is  CD7’s.

With 20 candidates vying for an open seat, voters – at least the few who bother to cast a ballot – are certain to find someone to their liking.  I am at least somewhat personally acquainted with, or have followed the postings in social media of a few: Terrence Gomes, Bonnie Corwin, David Barron and Krystee Clark.  I can say, with confidence, they are true activists whose motives are not political, but rooted in the best interests of their community. I am sure there are others as well.

On the other end of the spectrum is Karo Torrossian.  He is Councilman Krekorian’s  land use deputy who, if elected,  will be certain to do the bidding of developers at the expense of residents.  He has done a poor job of advocating for the residents in my part of the Valley.

You have important choices in other races as well, but these two are the most competitive and offer the best chances for a positive change in how the city operates.

 

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Last Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of attending a debate between two gentlemen in the race to replace termed-out Fran Pavley in the 27th SD. It was sponsored by the American Association of University Women (San Fernando Valley Branch), NOW and the League of Women Voters. Representatives from four West Valley Neighborhood Councils were there.

Henry Stern, who serves on Pavley’s staff, and Steve Fazio, a long-time small businessman in the San Fernando Valley, faced each other at the Westfield Mall, fielding questions from a panel and the audience.

The civility was refreshing.

The 27th is not my district. My reason for being there was to hear where the two opponents stood on California’s misguided and bloated high-speed rail project, particularly Mr. Stern’s view.

I met with him shortly before the primary. We discussed a number of issues, including HSR. I was impressed by his overall pragmatism, especially when it came to transportation priorities.

He stated then that he was supportive of commuter rail in general, but the HSR project was poorly conceived and planned.

I was wondering if he would stick to that position, especially when Lt. Governor Gavin Newsome recently flipped his stance. Perhaps Newsome buckled under pressure from the unions and contractors who stand to benefit from this financial debacle on rails, a project that is absorbing critical cap-and-trade funds.

If anything, Stern doubled down and recommended that the plan be put before the voters again.

He emphasized that HSR was putting the cart before the horse. What good would it be if we did not first develop intra-city transportation?

To be fair, Fazio also voiced strong opposition.

But if we are going to kill HSR, it would die a quicker death if there were more Democrats behind the effort to do so. That’s why candidates such as Stern and Patty Lopez, who is running for re-election in the 39th Assembly District, could further nudge others within their party to stop it before there is too much more money wasted.

Patty Lopez is engaged in a stalwart campaign, a rematch against party-insider favorite Raul Bocanegra. Despite her solid voting record along party lines, as well as getting several bills important to her constituents passed, the Democratic Party is supporting her opponent.

I’s all about money. Bocanegra spent lavishly on his colleagues’ campaigns in the 2014 election. He was an ATM for established members of the legislature. You don’t mess around with one of the good old boys, especially when he raises dough.

Yet, she stands a chance.

Bocanegra garnered only 44% of the primary vote this time compared to 62% in 2014 – the same year Lopez upset him in the general election. Perhaps money doesn’t buy as many votes these days. A measurable majority of voters did not support him.

A passage in a San Francisco Chronicle article about Lopez says it all:

“It’s nice to have an outsider in Sacramento,” said Lea-Ann Tratten, political director for the Consumer Attorneys of California, one of the few interest groups that have donated to Lopez.

“It’s refreshing. And frankly I think we need more of that. But that’s not how Sacramento works. It’s very much an insider game.”

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State Senator Bob Hertzberg is a smart man; smart enough to know the power of language. According to his bio, as an undergraduate English major, he wrote a 400-page handbook titled A Commonsense Approach to English.

To paraphrase a quote attributed to the late US Senator Everett Dirksen: A deft turn of a definition here, and a subtle re-characterization there, the next thing you know, we are dealing with some serious money!

And that has been Hertzberg’s game plan since he returned to the legislature in December 2014.

He introduced SB 8, a bill cloaked by a seemingly harmless name – the Upward Mobility Act. The senator described it as a tool to “modernize” the state’s tax structure. He admitted it would be designed to yield another $10B in tax revenue.

The bill died, but that did not stop Bob from reintroducing a replacement: SB 1445.

As SB 8 proposed, this new bill would extend the application of sales tax to services, a direct hit to all segments of society – the middle class, most notably. As he did with SB 8, he is characterizing it as “modernization.”

The only thing being modernized is the state’s access to our wallets.

But the “serial hugger” is not stopping there.  He again whipped out his English to Taxation dictionary to conjure up SB 1298.

His objective is to do an end run around Prop 218’s requirement for voter approval of tax increases by redefining “sewer service” to include stormwater projects. Perhaps “serial wordsmith” would serve as a better moniker for him. Please read the excellent editorial concerning 1298 in the Daily News. 

The bill has a worthwhile objective.  It is designed to encourage recovery of stormwater. No one is arguing with the benefits it offers to our drought-stricken state.

But it is dangerous to override the benefits of government transparency and the legislative process.

Californians are being asked to pony up more cash to fund a growing list of expensive projects.  In Los Angeles alone, we are being asked to pass a permanent increase in the sales tax for the MTA.  The city and county are considering spending over a billion dollars to provide housing to the homeless.  There is also the trainwreck of HSR absorbing funds that could be used to enhance the state’s water capacity.

Our state and local governments have no grasp of prioritization.  Capital budgeting is completely absent in the minds of Hertzberg, his colleagues in Sacramento and counterparts at the local level.

Taxpayers have a right to weigh in on what needs attention and the means of paying.  To do so requires presenting the big picture of competing needs. Let the people decide what is most important and authorize appropriate funding levels.

We do not have unlimited funds; we can only afford what can be sustained without breaking the bank.

Sneaking around the voters and playing word games, as Hertzberg has been doing, is disrespectful to all of us.

 

 

 

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It is no surprise that Assembly Member Patty Lopez advanced to the finals in the 39th AD. More on that later in the article.

Henry Stern’s path to the general election in the 27th Senate District was less certain.

There was no doubt that Republican Steve Fazio would make it, but most figured a Democrat would come in second due to the large field of Democratic candidates carving up the vote. He finished with 26.5% of the ballots cast, behind Fazio’s 37.5%, but well ahead of his chief Democratic challenger, Janice Kamenir-Reznik.

Reznik held an advantage over Stern early in the evening when absentee ballots weighed heavily.

Two key endorsements abandoned Stern for Kamenir-Reznik: former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and current Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. Despite those two big name defections, Stern prevailed and appears to have a lock on winning the general. Fazio’s support is unlikely to grow significantly to where he can give Stern a run for his money. Supporters of the other candidates are likely to line up behind Stern, who is a senior staff member of Fran Pavley, the termed-out, current office holder.

The race makes you wonder about the value of endorsements from individuals

I had the pleasure of discussing a number of issues with Stern a few weeks ago. He is someone who appears to be receptive, especially on issues with a direct impact locally.

Patty Lopez, the Rocky of local politicians, appears to face a similar challenge to the one which confronted her back in 2014. Her opponent, Raul Bocanegra, a favorite of the establishment, with the backing of the State Democratic Party, and who outspent Lopez 10 to 1, finished the night with 45% of the vote. Lopez garnered 27%.

With that kind of spending and structural advantage, earning measurably less than a majority is unimpressive and points to vulnerability in the general for Bocanegra. He had almost 63% of the vote in the 2014 primary before falling to the Lopez’ indomitable grassroots push in the general, when he ran as the incumbent. He starts off in a weaker position this time around.

If Lopez can attract support from the pool of voters who supported other fine candidates in the primary, then Bocanegra could be in for a long night on November 8. A loss would all but destroy his aspirations to regain a seat anywhere. It is hard to raise money from deep pockets when you have burned through a small fortune in back-to-back losing efforts.

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There were two articles in Citywatch recently about the candidacy of Janice Kamenir-Reznik, who seeks the open seat to be vacated by termed-out Fran Pavley in Senate District 27.

There are five candidates, including Republican Steve Fazio, who stands an almost certain chance to make it to the general election. The district is moderately competitive owing to enough Republican or decline-to-state registration to rule out a walkover by a Democrat.

But Reznik faces a formidable opponent in Democrat Henry Stern.
The fact that it is an open seat makes it potentially even more competitive.

Stern is a senior advisor to Pavley. In that role, he undoubtedly has absorbed much about the workings of the district and the issues affecting the state.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was approached by a mutual acquaintance to chat with him. Even though I do not have a vested interest in the district, the potential for a competitive race got my attention. Not to mention that there are state issues in play affecting all of us.

It is likely that this will be one race I will follow besides what will be a marquee event in AD39 between Patty Lopez and Raul Bocanegra, who was taken down by Lopez in what had to be the biggest upset in modern times in California.

Stern and I sat down over coffee the other day and covered a range of subjects. It was not a Q&A; more of a discussion. And it was more process-oriented, framed by some key issues concerning both the state and local levels.

I will start by saying he impressed me by his focus on how things should get done. If you involve the public at the grassroots and level with them, there is a greater likelihood of turning out sensible legislation.

For example, he faulted the lack of transparency by the framers of Prop 47 (which allowed early prison releases)for not providing details as to when structural savings from a smaller prison population would kick in, and not dealing with funding resources localities would need to deal with the influx of former inmates. For that matter, he stated that poorly-crafted propositions were all too common.

Prop 1A, which authorized the sale of $9.5B in bonds to fund the start-up of high-speed rail, was another case where a half-baked plan was sold to the public. His boss, Fran Pavley, opposed the initial funding for constructing the controversial system in the Central Valley.

Stern and I agreed that there was nothing wrong with the concept of HSR, but the plan was unrealistic and the assumptions unsubstantiated, plus there are far more important priorities facing the state ranging from education, infrastructure and water, to the problems of homelessness. Cap-and-trade funds could be applied to considerably more effective environmental improvements (if indeed the train would even produce a measurable net effect on the clean air in our lifetimes, a criticism often cited by opponents).

On a local level, he claimed to be very supportive of Neighborhood Councils and strongly urged making the voices of residents a priority when it comes to determining development. Stern said that was a key difference he has with Resnik. He also did not support the density bonuses allowed under SB1818 due to the unintended consequences of of the bill’s implementation.

He was strongly concerned over how CEQA has been subverted in the interest of development.

Stern expressed his dismay as to how Porter Ranch was ever approved for development given the adjacent gas field. He supports a fee to be paid by Sempra- one that cannot be passed on to customers – to cover the damages suffered by the residents. He did acknowledge it would take oversight to assure the cost would be fully absorbed by the gas company.

As I mentioned earlier, this will be a race to watch in both the primary and general.

I will cover it in greater depth.

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When State Senator Bob Hertzberg announced his tax proposal, SB8, in late 2014, he made no secret of using it as a tool to raise taxes by a net $10 billion – that is, per year.

The senator tried to pass it off as “tax modernization.”

He even gave the bill a deceivingly benign name: the Upward Mobility Act. Loosely translated, that means the Up Your Wallet Robbery initiative. I would have been at least conciliatory towards it had he been straightforward and called it a tax increase, rather than obfuscating its purpose. Hertzberg has generally been a straight-shooter in his career, so this slight of hand attempt was out of character, making it all the more disappointing.

A year later, it effectively died. It received no traction in Sacramento. Governor Brown shrugged it off; the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, which Hertzberg chairs, did not deem it worthy to progress. It officially died January of this year.

He said he would reintroduce it.

He did in February – SB1445.

This time, Hertzberg made no fanfare, perhaps learning a lesson from the bad publicity he created with SB8. For that matter, the bill contains only intent language at this time. It appears he is playing it close to his chest.

Does he still want to raise $10B?

As I stated in an earlier article on the subject, Hertzberg needs to share how the bill would impact each segment of the state’s taxpayers.

He did not in 2015, although he must have had an idea. One does not arrive at a figure as large as $10B without having at least penciled it out in some detail.

Let’s see what he does this year.

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