The contenders in a special election for the 31st Assembly District squared off Wednesday afternoon in a debate to clarify their positions on high-speed rail, water, education, the California economy, health care and other hot-button issues.
The two Democrats, emergency room director and physician Joaquin Arambula of Kingsburg and retired engineer Ted Miller of Caruthers, and Republican Clint Olivier, a member of the Fresno City Council, fielded questions for nearly two hours in the debate presented by The Fresno Bee and PowerTalk FM 96.7/AM 1400.
The 31st Assembly District encompasses southern and western Fresno County. The three candidates are running in an April 5 special election to replace Henry T. Perea, a Democrat from Fresno who resigned last year to take a job with a pharmaceutical lobbying firm in Sacramento.
Things got testy between Olivier and Arambula, who traded barbs over some of their positions. After Arambula floated the idea of using state cap-and-trade money – paid by companies to acquire air pollution credits to offset their own emissions – to spur job creation and reduce unemployment, Olivier called it “a ultraliberal answer from an ultraliberal candidate” because, he said, “that money comes from poor people who are economically disadvantaged.”
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Arambula fired back, calling Olivier’s assertion “a half-truth and a personal attack.” He also corrected Olivier when he referred to the federal Medicare program instead of the state’s Medi-Cal program on a couple of occasions in discussions of the need for higher reimbursements to medical providers.
Some of the sharpest distinctions in the debate emerged over California’s $64 billion high-speed rail project, for which construction is underway in Fresno and Madera counties. Arambula and Miller both proclaimed their support for the controversial program, while Olivier restated his long-held opposition.
“High-speed rail is just the type of project that will bring jobs back to the San Joaquin Valley,” Arambula said. “We must find ways to continue to support it.”
Miller said the evolution of the rail project, including a recent pivot to begin operations between the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area instead of the Los Angeles Basin, as “the nature of engineering projects.”
“It’s an engineering project … and the state needs to look at the various alternatives available to achieve the goals of the project,” Miller added.
Olivier predicted that high-speed rail “is going to be catastrophic” and would “saddle future generations with debt.”
Water supplies for people and for farming was another highlight issue for the candidates. All three said California has to do much more to enable water use to recharge underground aquifers. But sharp differences emerged on other facets of the volatile water issue.
Olivier said he opposes a proposal to build tunnels to transfer water from Northern California to areas south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta rather than pumping water from the Delta.
“This is yet another massive state project that there’s no money for,” Olivier said, adding that he believes the project would “be dead on arrival” once its biggest booster, Gov. Jerry Brown, leaves office at the end of 2018.
Miller said he supports the idea of tunnels because the proposed development of a new dam at Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River – which he also favors – wouldn’t adequately address the Valley’s needs compared with the volume of water available from north of the Delta.
Arambula said he is concerned about the potential cost of tunnels, but acknowledged that ways must be found to bring water from the north to the south.
“I’m still undecided about where I am about the tunnels,” he said. “I don’t need to decide that in next 13 days” before the election.
Another key difference arose over the decaying state of highways and roads in the 31st District, and how the state should pay to maintain them. Olivier cited the state Legislative Analyst’s Office to gird his belief that money could be shifted to road maintenance by cutting bloat and inefficiency in the California Department of Transportation, and ensuring that money paid in weight fees by commercial truckers go toward highways instead of the state’s general fund.
Arambula, however, said that while some money could come from shifting Caltrans’ budget, more will be needed. He added that the state needs a way for drivers of electric cars, who pay no fuel taxes, which are used for road maintenance, to “pay their fair share to make sure roads are rebuilt.”
A rare point of agreement came in a discussion of California’s minimum wage. None of the three said they support a measure that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $15.
31st Assembly District special
Election Day: April 5
Last day to register: March 21
Election Day: June 7
Last day to register: May 23
Information: Secretary of State’s webpage