The conventional wisdom, which I have thus far embraced, is that California Gov. Gavin Newsom would push the state’s politics much further to the Left, leaving Republicans wishing for the good old days of Democrat Jerry Brown’s administration.
That still is a relatively safe bet given Newsom’s support for universal healthcare and other progressive nostrums. However, in his State of the State address Tuesday, the new governor surprised pretty much everyone in the state and outflanked Brown on the Right. He did so in a tangible way, which is causing fits among progressive advocates of that ridiculous Green New Deal.
Newsom dramatically scaled back two multibillion-dollar infrastructure programs, including a misguided $77 billion to $100 billion high-speed rail project that those environmental New Dealers saw as the foundation for their nationwide transportation delusions. Say what you want about our leftist new governor, but his announcement Tuesday probably caused more gnashing of teeth on the Left than anything Donald Trump recently has done.
Jerry Brown gained the reputation as the Last Adult in Sacramento because of his refusal to authorize new, ongoing social programs that would bust the budget during a recession. Nevertheless, he was fixated on building two grandiose infrastructure projects with growing price tags and few justifiable benefits. His rail plan to connect the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin was bizarre, given that it would be slower and have higher ticket prices than a plane flight. Most of us wondered who would ride it. It was really about battling global warming.
The other project would have built massive, twin tunnels that took water from the Sacramento River at the north end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to a pumping station at the south end, for distribution to farms and cities southward. The project is an engineering solution to a political problem: State officials routinely shut the pumps to protect endangered Delta smelt, which occasionally swim into the pump screens. This project would bypass the problem by taking water underneath the West Coast’s largest estuary, at a mere cost of $20 billion.
Brown was generally a sensible governor except in those areas in which he was fanatical. The latter include climate change and infrastructure. Modest policies to deal with climate issues are one thing, but his end-of-days rhetoric and costs-don’t-justify-benefits projects invited derision. When it came to Big Infrastructure, Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown Jr. was channeling his father, Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown Sr., who is still lauded (even by conservatives) for his role in building the massive freeway and water projects that paved the way (literally) for modern California.
There was no stopping Jerry Brown’s commitment to his legacy infrastructure projects, despite the engineering problems of getting a bullet train over the imposing Tehachapi Mountains and boring tunnels underneath one of the state’s great historical and environmental treasures. Until Tuesday.
During his speech, Newsom said, “Let’s level about high speed rail. I have nothing but respect for Governor Brown’s and Governor Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision. I share it. And there’s no doubt that our state’s economy and quality of life depend on improving transportation. But let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency. Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.”
He pulled the plug on core portions of the project, but promised to continue building the line between Merced and Bakersfield, two cities in the flat and agricultural Central Valley. “Look, we will continue our regional projects north and south,” he said. “We’ll finish Phase 1 environmental work. We’ll connect the revitalized Central Valley to other parts of the state, and continue to push for more federal funding and private dollars. But let’s just get something done.”
He acknowledged that critics will call the new line a “train to nowhere” and then defended the Valley segment. Whatever. A tiny segment of a bad project funded with existing dollars is far better than a full build-out that will encumber California taxpayers for generations. Voters, in all their foolishness, approved a $9.95 billion starter segment and this seems to be the easiest way to cut our losses without violating the intent of the 2008 statewide initiative.
Some say the Newsom plan is designed to keep the project alive, by epitomizing former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown’s approach to infrastructure: “The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.” Maybe, but at least he isn’t plowing ahead with a full project even though the money isn’t there – and won’t be there as long as Republicans control the federal purse strings. It’s not a full victory for rail critics, but Newsom’s words were praised by legislative Republicans because it represents a serious pullback. As you can imagine, high-speed rail advocates were livid, which makes the speech even sweeter.
Regarding the tunnels, Newsom said, “I do not support the Water Fix as currently configured. Meaning, I do not support the twin tunnels. But we can build on the important work that’s already been done. That’s why I do support a single tunnel.” Again, a smaller boondoggle is better than a larger one, but no boondoggles would be better yet. Nevertheless, Newsom has done something rarely seen in Sacramento: He has significantly scaled back two large taxpayer-funded projects, including one that was a centerpiece of the progressive national agenda.
The rest of his talk was about building a Democratic agenda around healthcare, fighting the Trump administration’s border policies and other expected positions. His mention of charter schools, focus on transparency and reference to single-payer healthcare as a “long-term” goal rather than short-term objective suggests, to me, that Newsom has his eye on the presidency and will govern in a traditional liberal rather than far-left manner. Overall, he might not be better than Brown, but he might not be any worse, either. For these small things, we, Californians, are thankful.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.