PT talks to California Assemblyman Rick Keene, a member of the Infrastructure Conference Committee, about the process and pitfalls of creating a cohesive infrastructure strategy for California.
PT: Infrastructure seems to be all anyone's talking about. Are efforts to fix the system in Sacramento finished for the time being?
Keene: I think the shift from political reform debate to the infrastructure discussion is good. Whenever we get into a bad situation and we're tight on money, the first thing taken off the table is infrastructure. Even in good times, people have been reticent to take the action we need to maintain our state. So, I think it's a positive discussion, but its tenor—whether it's practical
or feasible—is really where we get hung up. Infrastructure means a lot of things to a lot of people, depending on what you're trying to do.
PT: Is the definition of "infrastructure" going to produce some of the biggest arguments, or will it be a case of each region vying for as much money as possible?
Keene: A lot of the discussion that will have to take place is about that definition, but the real concern will be the process itself and how we choose projects. For example, the last set of levy construction projects that were done cost $25 million per mile. Obviously, at that cost you'll only be able to fix about 40 miles of levies for $1 billion, and that's not practical. We need to examine these process issues, because we can't be spending $1 billion to fix 40 miles of levies when we have 1,600 miles that need to be improved.
PT: Are you optimistic about these concerns actually being heard in committee?
Keene: Well, we've made it a condition of our discussions because we're looking for the most practical infrastructural impact for the dollar. Everyone has their wish list, but if it's allowed to go forward under that scenario, I'm not very confident that we'll see a lot of improvement in the things we're concerned about.
PT: $222 billion is a lot of money. What will have to happen in the Assembly to keep the process from veering toward a "wish list" mentality?
Keene: There is going to have to be a narrowing of our definition of "infrastructure." We're not going to debate whether or not the state needs low-income housing; we're just saying that that's not infrastructure. Same with hospital retrofitting. If people want to discuss these issues, then that's a good discussion to have, but we can't let these things obscure the reality of our infrastructure needs. You can't piecemeal a multi-billion dollar water storage facility. If you're going to talk about water storage, then let's talk about actually constructing the stuff instead of doing it piece-by-piece.
PT: Is there a decent consensus across the aisle on a handful of projects that absolutely must be done—projects that aren't even a question?
Keene: No. At this point we're just in the initial stages. Today we had a meeting with leadership, and they want all of the affected committees to come forward with their proposals as to what we want to see. The problem is that this process is the perfect recipe for getting a Christmas tree bond setup, because everyone will want to get a piece of it before they move forward. There is no stepping back to look at critical needs, and this is imperative if we are to narrow our focus as to what infrastructure is.
PT: What is the general tone right now? What direction is this going to take?
Keene: The tone today is that all of the committees in every venue will meet together to voice the different bond proposals and their analysis of them in order to come up with a Republican position and a Democratic position from each of the committees. The problem is that this will probably pre-invest everyone in a particular outcome.
PT: It sounds like that would kind of poison the well in a way.
Keene: Exactly. But who knows. Maybe everyone will be more disciplined about it. Maybe they'll go in to committee meetings and say, "OK, our committee is meeting and we're going to talk about it, but we're not going to tie ourselves to one direction at all. Unfortunately, the approach at this time is, "Here's a bazillion dollars. What would you spend it on?" I think that's just a recipe for disaster.
PT: This sounds like a real flaw in the process—a structural deficiency. Would you agree?
Keene: Absolutely. The process and decision-making protocol were flawed from the beginning. As a result, you can't have a reasonable outcome, and therefore money is spent like water but the results are never delivered.
Rick Keene represents Chico and the 3rd Assembly District. Keene graduated from California State University Chico in 1982 with B.A. degrees in psychology and religious studies. He earned his law degree from Cal Northern School of Law in 1989.