A familiar San Joaquin Valley wish list faces plenty of Capitol Hill obstacles, but here’s the thing:
You don’t ask, you don’t get.
In an annual lobbying ritual, more than 30 officials from eight Valley counties this week swarmed the Hill in search of federal support for an assortment of projects and priorities. They want better roads, more reliable water and cleaner air, none of which comes cheap.
What they got was a crash course in congressional politics, circa 2015.
“I’ve learned it’s going to be a struggle to get some of our initiatives and priorities moving along,” acknowledged Madera Mayor Robert Poythress. “We’ve been hearing from the legislators that there seems to be a high degree of gridlock.”
Poythress chairs the San Joaquin Valley Regional Policy Council, which represents the area from San Joaquin County in the north to Kern County in the south. Mayors, city council members, county supervisors, planners and air-quality managers united for the so-called “Valley Voice” trip.
As in past years, the Valley officials pressed for an updated Clean Air Act that could better tend to the region’s smog problem. They identified the highways and bridges that could benefit from a reauthorized transportation bill. They pleaded for “comprehensive plans that address water supply, reliability and affordability.”
“We have to stick together with the same message,” said Patterson Mayor Luis L. Molina. “We’re in difficult, challenging times.”
Meeting on both sides of the Capitol starting Wednesday and concluding Thursday, the Valley representatives presented their requests and gathered intelligence. At night, they debriefed each other and strategized at places like Johnny’s Half Shell restaurant.
California lawmakers who appeared one by one before the Valley Voice delegation listened sympathetically; they needed no convincing from their own constituents. San Joaquin Mayor Amarpreet S. Dhaliwal said he sensed that “the lasting drought has brought the urgency to do something about reliable water supply for our state on a bipartisan level.”
“Those we have met with have confirmed that real solutions require an active partnership between our federal government and the communities they represent,” said Rosa De Leon Park, executive director of the Stanislaus Council of Governments.
Even so, some lawmakers candidly acknowledged the often bleak prospects for meaningful congressional action.
“I don’t know if they’re overwhelmed by all the other things they’re working on, but they seem not to be very positive or optimistic,” Poythress said.
Some impediments are relatively new. Others reflect longstanding policy conflicts.
Congressional conservatives, heeding the call of presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are threatening to oppose any federal government appropriations bill that does not eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. Several dozen House of Representatives Republicans already have signed a pledge to that effect. So far, none is from the San Joaquin Valley.
An earlier stand taken by House conservatives against the Affordable Care Act led to a 16-day federal government shutdown in 2013. The repeated shutdown threats seriously complicate any legislative initiative that requires money.
A separate, seemingly intractable dispute over funding a multibillion-dollar transportation bill, meanwhile, has continually disrupted the Valley’s long-term highway planning. Congress has failed since 2005 to pass a transportation bill lasting longer than two years, and the latest in a long string of temporary extensions is now set to expire Oct. 29.
“The most difficult part of the transportation bill is how to raise revenue,” Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida noted. “There is opposition no matter what they do.”
Stanislaus County Supervisor William O’Brien added that “we definitely still have challenges ahead of us” in coping with issues like protecting the Valley’s air quality, while streamlining what he called “administrative bureaucracy.”