Policy Today magazine cover
May/June, 2006

After intense political wrangling, voters will see a $37 billion bond package in November. Many are wondering how it finally came to pass, and why it didn't happen in time for the June ballot.

In his state of the state address earlier this year, Governor Schwarzenegger called on the California Legislature to "build it." The "it" he referred to was virtually everything concrete and steel between the northern Sierras and the La Jolla shores. Talks began immediately on a massive infrastructure bond package, but as the weeks rolled by, levees crumbled under heavy rains and road congestion continued to mount. Legislators hoping to place a bond package on the June ballot saw their efforts bog down on tangential issues and partisan squabbles. It looked like standard Sacramento deadlock.

All of this was supposed to have changed after last November. The state's infrastructure bonanza was to heal the wounds from 2005's bitter special election, but the Legislature's failure to meet the June ballot deadline only pulled at the stitches. In the end, chastened legislators finally produced a compromise bill with relatively wide bipartisan support. The final package is a whopper: Four bonds, $37.3 billion, and projects encompassing transportation ($20 billion), housing ($2.9 billion), education ($10.4 billion) and flood protection ($4.1 billion).

So, what made this process so difficult, and why wasn't it done sooner?

It's all part of the process

When the state Legislature came back from break in January, Senator Alan Lowenthal, (D-Long Beach), says the transportation commission he sits on was working on the fattened Perata bill, which had added roughly $3 billion in housing and transit projects. That was before the governor's massive $222 billion, 10-year strategic planning proposal snagged the headlines and the committee was asked to use it as a template for future funding recommendations.

Lowenthal says the committee agreed with the governor's proposal on a number of issues, including the necessity of a bond measure, the emphasis on goods movement and the inclusion of an air quality component. "We disagreed with the governor on some of the process issues," says Lowenthal.

For instance, the senator says he saw the issue of congestion relief as not just about increasing highway capacity and squeezing more cars onto state roads, but as various issues of security, access and environmental concern.

Told by the business community that employees had housing problems, Lowenthal argued that providing housing close to job centers would reduce both daily commutes and the snarled freeway traffic.

Still, after all the haggling that ensued, the Legislature came up with an $18 billion bond package that ultimately failed to get the needed two-thirds vote, and any chance of reviving talks seemed dire.

"We thought we had a good bill before," says Senator Tom Torlakson, (D-Antioch). "Unfortunately, adding that dam took away some votes."

With the governor, Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, (D-Oakland), Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez,
(D-Los Angeles), and the Republican caucus all trying to angle their own infrastructure proposals, Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, says reaching an agreement in time for the June 6 ballot was unrealistic.

"Melding all those into an agreed-upon compromise wouldn't have happened before June," he says. Under those auspices, the process contracted and the legislative leaders locked themselves in a nicely furnished suite to work out the monster package in time for the November ballot.

An exclusive club

Most Californians are happy that their representatives are addressing the state's choked roadways and leaky levees. But the devil is often in the details, and one of the most overlooked details on the road to the final bond package is the process itself. Many people wonder if the dominance of legislative leadership in the ultimate negotiations short circuits the deliberative process. Others are concerned about whether the package represents an accurate balance of voices.

"All of this is being done by four people in a locked room," laughs Senator Tom McClintock, (R-Thousand Oaks). "What would make you think I know more about it than you do?"

McClintock was the only state senator to vote against the $19.9 billion transportation bond, and he joined a handful of other senators in opposing the housing and education bonds as well.

"The measure is not 'what specifically do we intend to build with this money?' It's how much of a bond measure can we get away with putting on the ballot," says McClintock. "It's a lousy way to make decisions."

"Everybody who wants to be in the loop is in the loop," says Torlakson. But the issue McClintock raises is a troubling one. Is the bond package that Californians will see on the November ballot the one they need? Or will it be stuffed with more pork than a post-luau ham sandwich?

Torlakson promises "the major issues are addressed" by the current bond package. McClintock, however, says the negotiation process that spawned the package has a bad track record.

"It is directly responsible for some of the greatest fiascoes in our state's recent history, including the electricity reorganization measure, the budgets that have put the state on a course to bankruptcy and the bond fiascoes," he says. "This is being done in both election years and non election years."

Moving forward

Virtually everyone in the state has high hopes for the ambitious infrastructure program envisioned by the governor and ultimately delivered by the Legislature.

"We did our job," said Perata as the votes were counted and passage was assured. But while leadership can be commended for forging a strong bipartisan consensus on a serious issue, the legacy of the public works bill may be more subtle.

The governor said "build it," and the legislative foremen eventually donned their hard hats. With any luck, the bond package they have built will go far toward meeting California's bricks and mortar needs. California citizens, however, should consider Senator McClintock's unhappiness with a decision-making process that took place behind closed doors rather than the open forum for which it was intended.

About Raheem F. Hosseini

Raheem F. Hosseini is a reporter and columnist living in Folsom, California.