Fresno Assembly Member Jim Patterson, who like many other Valley Republicans is no particular fan of California's high-speed train plans, is taking a swing at derailing money for the controversial project with a bill to be heard Monday by the Assembly's Transportation Committee.
His legislation, Assembly Bill 1501, is aimed at barring the California High-Speed Rail Authority from spending any more of the $6 billion in federal grants that the Obama administration has pledged to the state to begin building a backbone of the statewide bullet-train line through the San Joaquin Valley.
Most Federal Railroad Administration grants require states to pony up a matching share of money, with states paying the bills first and then getting reimbursed by the feds. But amendments to the grant agreements between the FRA and the state have allowed California to front-load the spending of the federal grants while it awaits approval to sell bonds from Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion bond measure approved by state voters in 2008. Without the bonds, the state has few other immediate resources to start coming up with its matching share.
Like many other aspects of the rail project, however, the bonds are tied up in the legal system, pending action by the state's Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento.
What Patterson's bill would do is prohibit the rail authority from using the federal money unless the bond funds -- or some other source of money -- are immediately available for the state's matching share. The prohibition would kick in even though the federal government has said it's OK for the state to use the FRA grants first.
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed using cap-and-trade money, from the state's auctions of carbon-emission credits, as a stop-gap measure to begin meeting California's grant-matching obligations. But that's not until the new 2014-15 budget year, which won't begin until July if the state Legislature approves a budget on time -- and if the Legislature has the political appetite to use the cap-and-trade money for high-speed rail.
"By continuing to spend federal money, the HSRA is leaving taxpayers holding a bag full of matching state bond funds that a judge has said can't be spent," Patterson said in a press release. "We are essentially overdrawing our bank account by spending these federal funds. We simply don't have the matching funds required by the federal government to go forward with this project."
Patterson's bill represents a stateside prong of a similar assault on the high-speed train project by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. Denham introduced a bill in Congress that would require the FRA to cut off its spending of federal money on California's project if the state cannot come up with the matching money.
But while Denham's legislation stands a good chance in the House of Representatives (but an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate), Patterson's bill may face a swift end in the Transportation Committee, in which Democrats have a 11-5 advantage over Republicans. If the bill were to find its way out of the transportation panel, it would face similar long odds in other committees or on the Assembly floor, as well as in the state Senate.