Political Notebook

San Joaquin Valley officials take their annual wish list to Congress

Traffic on Highway 99 in Fresno. Widening the road was one of the issues San Joaquin Valley officials discussed in their annual visit to Congress.
Traffic on Highway 99 in Fresno. Widening the road was one of the issues San Joaquin Valley officials discussed in their annual visit to Congress. Fresno Bee file

San Joaquin Valley officials picture a world in which:

Highway 99 grows wider in Merced, Madera and Tulare counties. Stronger roads support the region’s heavy dairy tankers. New reservoirs get built. And, not least, some bipartisan cooperation blossoms on Capitol Hill.

Farfetched? Maybe. But this week, elected representatives and staffers from eight Valley counties are making their collective case to an often-fitful Congress. They’re following the adage, sometimes applicable in lobbying as in life, that fortune favors the bold.

“We’re bringing attention to the needs of the Valley, and making sure that all of our legislators know where we stand,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien said Wednesday, adding that “we also get different audiences than we normally get with just the congressmen.”

O’Brien, for instance, was speaking in the Cannon House Office Building, where three House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staffers were briefing the visitors. In the afternoon, the Valley officials talked about clean air rules at the Environmental Protection Agency.

“There’s a lot to learn,” O’Brien said.

Earlier this year, more narrowly focused lobbying teams swarmed Capitol Hill, with a Fresno County contingent arriving in April, followed by a Merced County squad in May.

But in the annual “Valley Voice” advocacy trip that runs through Thursday, assorted mayors, city council members and supervisors from different counties have momentarily set aside parochial concerns and adopted a team identity as the San Joaquin Valley Regional Policy Council.

“Our collective voice together means, I think, that we carry a lot more weight for the Valley,” said Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa. “I hope we have a little more pull.”

This week’s broader work, led by San Joaquin Mayor Amarpreet Dhaliwal, the chair of the policy council, formally kicked off Wednesday morning in a meeting with Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. It is scheduled to end Thursday afternoon at the Department of Transportation.

All told, the group of about 30 elected officials and associated staffers scheduled meetings with seven House members and both of the state’s senators; or, at least, the lawmakers’ available staffers.

Adding some Capitol Hill know-how, D.C.-based lobbyist Len Simon is assisting the Valley officials. His firm, Simon and Co., has been paid $10,000 annually in recent years by the San Joaquin Valley Regional Policy Council.

These regional lobbying trips generally follow certain scripts, down to the lunches grabbed at the Longworth House Office Building’s basement cafeteria. Still, with Congress having sworn off earmarks, the wish lists have shifted away from locally focused line items in appropriations bills.

“We used to come in, and I think we were a little impatient, in terms of ‘Why can’t we get this done?’ and also in terms of looking for the money,” said Robert Phipps, administrative services director of the Kern Council of Governments. “I think we’ve tried to change our approach a little bit, to look at more policy-related requests that aren’t as focused on money.”

This year, the Valley policy council’s requests include “special funding for rural roads” in the next big farm or transportation bill. The officials also want federal agencies to consider a region’s economic disadvantages when allocating highway and other transportation grants.

“We have serious transportation issues in the Valley, and we need to get goods to market,” said Madera County Supervisor David Rogers, adding that “we’re dealing with a situation where many of the roads are substandard to transport goods.”

Off-road, the Valley officials are urging Congress to authorize new water storage projects at Temperance Flats on the Upper San Joaquin River and at the Sites Reservoir location in the Sacramento Valley. With California water policies splitting Congress apart, these reservoir proposals could recur on many “Valley Voice” trips for years to come.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10