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Jerry Brown teaches a lesson in old-school politics

California Republican lawmakers recently signed a letter urging Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to withhold $650 million in federal funding for improving CalTrain, the commuter line that runs from San Jose to San Francisco.
California Republican lawmakers recently signed a letter urging Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to withhold $650 million in federal funding for improving CalTrain, the commuter line that runs from San Jose to San Francisco. San Jose Mercury News file

Lessons gleaned from the Legislature’s vote to levy $52 billion in taxes during the coming decade to pay for road and public transit improvements:

Experience matters, as Jerry Brown, California’s four-term governor demonstrated. Earmarks are magical, as Sen. Anthony Cannella, the former Ceres mayor and lone Republican who voted for the measure, made clear. And math, though hard, is important.

California Democrats, led by Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Speaker Anthony Rendon, showed they could count to 27 and 54, the requisite two-thirds majorities in the Senate and Assembly, unlike Republicans, who control Washington, D.C., and ignominiously belly flopped in their ill-considered attempt to repeal Obamacare.

Brown, who turned 79 on Friday, the day after the vote, understood the age-old wisdom of getting votes the old-fashioned way: you pay for them, though it’s best if the policy is on the spectrum between defensible and wise.

Environmentalists had worried that the original deal would allow diesel pollution from trucks to foul the air in the particularly smoggy districts east of Los Angeles. So $50 million materialized to pay for zero and near-zero emission engines at ports and warehouses.

Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, a Corona Democrat who unseated a Republican in a November, worried about their future. And so $427 million appeared for traffic-choked roads and rails in their Riverside County districts.

For years, Cannella has been advocating that the Altamont Corridor Express train, which carries Central Valley passengers to jobs in the Silicon Valley, be extended to his hometown of Ceres.

And so when Democrats realized they were one vote short in the Senate, their path was clear: Carve out $500 million for the Cannella Line to Ceres. It was a smart move by Cannella that will be good for his district and for the rest of us who see the need for better roads.

“Sound policy makes good politics.” Carl Guardino, director of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group said. “The ACE train runs at more than 100 percent of capacity, and it should be extended to help alleviate the commute that on the pock-marked parking lot we call Highway 580.”

Here’s another lesson: Republicans continue on their long decline in California, lamely using the occasion of the big transportation vote to send out email fundraising pitches:

“For years CA Dems have neglected our failing road system and now they want to fix them at the taxpayers’ expense,” one of the missives sent last week said.

But a fundamental part of their base of support, the California Chamber of Commerce, was among the most vigorous backers of the legislation. Such business groups understand that California’s rutted freeways are bad for commerce. They also know a broad-based tax on people who use roads is a smart way to pay for construction, rather than borrowing.

But Republicans are relevant, for better and not, so long they control Congress and White House. The Trump administration last week authorized $274 million in federal disaster assistance to repair the storm-damaged Oroville Dam in a reconstruction project that is being fast-tracked by the Brown administration.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, the Republican who represents Oroville, persuaded other Republicans to sign a letter making sure that Trump paid attention to California’s legitimate need for federal aide. That Republicans felt obliged to step in ought to cause Californians to worry. There should be no question that a dam that is vital to the needs of millions people must be repaired.

But as Californians have come to find out that, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of Bakersfield, and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, are perfectly happy to play petty politics with Californians’ legitimate needs.

Denham and McCarthy got the other 12 Republicans in the California congressional delegation to sign a letter urging that President Donald Trump’s transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, withhold $650 million in federal funding for improving CalTrain, the commuter line that runs from San Jose to San Francisco. It was a stunningly petty move, part of their effort to kill high-speed rail, which they despise.

And although Trump has promised to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, Chao and Trump acceded to McCarthy and Denham’s wish. The lesson: California cannot depend on Washington for much beyond the necessities. And if it does, unacceptable strings will be attached.

But maybe Denham will see a lesson. The ACE train will go to Ceres and head to Merced. As it now stands, there won’t be a stop in Turlock.

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