Crunch time

Oct 31, 2011

A key moment comes Tuesday when California's high-speed rail officials unveil a new business plan, one they hope will keep the multibillion-dollar project on track. It will be a challenge, after period marked by assorted fumbles and miscues. David Siders in the Sacramento Bee has the story. 


"The plan's release comes at perhaps the most critical moment for California's high-speed rail prospects since voters approved $9 billion in rail bonds in 2008. The release precedes a decision by the Legislature next year about whether to let the project proceed."


"This is a watershed moment for high-speed rail," said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. "I think people are reasonably expecting that we get some good answers to hard questions, most obviously, 'What's it going to cost and how are we going to pay for it?' "

"In a preview of its revised document, the authority said in a letter to lawmakers this month that private-sector investment is unlikely until after at least part of the project is operational. The position is more conservative than the authority maintained last year, which could benefit its reception by lawmakers immersed in California's still-teetering budget."


As the supercommittee in Washington -- 12 members, with six from each major party -- seeks ways to cut the budget to ease a $1.2 trillion trade deficit, they are putting together the 2012 farm bill without any input from California, the nation's largest agricultural state.


From the Chronicle's Stacy Finz: "A new Farm Bill, which sets the budget for everything from farm support programs and renewable-energy research to food stamps and conservation initiatives, is passed every five years. Many in California's agriculture community are concerned the new bill will show favoritism to commodity crops - corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice and peanuts - leaving California, largely a specialty crop state emphasizing fruits, vegetables and nuts, with fewer funds for organic farming, environmental protection and research programs.

"Currently, California receives only about 5 percent of the money set aside for farm programs despite producing 12 percent of the country's total agricultural revenue. And with the proposed cuts, the state could get even less."


"To think that a Farm Bill is being written in a few weeks behind closed doors is crazy," said Kari Hamerschlag, a senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, a Washington and Oakland nonprofit that is outspoken about toxic chemicals, farm subsidies and land use. "We think that it's important that California stand up and look out for what is best for the state."

Gov. Brown has at least two reasons to push changes in the public pension system: It helps him politically and it's good for state and local governments. 


From the LA Times' George Skelton: "Brown's pension proposal would be a significant achievement if enacted merely as is."


"In brief, it would force most current public employees — state and local, including teachers — to pay more toward their pensions. And it would trim retirement benefits for future employees. They'd receive a pension-401(k)-type mix and their retirement ages would be raised."


"Retirement pay, including Social Security, would replace 75% of their salaries. That's the goal. Still a good haul by private-enterprise standards."


"The full retirement age for most new state employees would rise from 63 to 67. Current workers generally can quit and begin drawing partial pensions at 50, with some noted exceptions. Highway patrol officers and prison guards are entitled to full-boat pensions at 50."


San Francisco politics, always great entertainment, is getting better with ranked-choice voting. And a good example of that is the mayoral race, reports the Chronicle's John Wildemuth.


"Welcome to San Francisco politics in the ranked-choice voting era, where virtually the only way for a challenger to move up is to pull the front-runner down."


"And in this year's race for mayor, that means Lee has had a target on his back ever since early August, when he went back on his pledge to serve only as interim mayor and announced he would seek a full term this November."


"Actually, Lee was in the crosshairs even before he was in the race, with five of his rivals ganging up in July in a joint news conference to demand an investigation into a group urging him to run."


Led by Silicon Valley, the economy appears to be on the mend in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it could fizzle unless other industries start showing job growth.

From George Avalos in the Contra Costa Times: "Over the first nine months of 2011, the technology industry added 26,200 workers, 65 percent of all the jobs created in the Bay Area, this newspaper's analysis of data compiled by state officials and Beacon Economics shows. High-tech jobs account for 18 percent of the Bay Area's workforce."


"If the Bay Area jobs recovery doesn't broaden, it is in danger of fizzling out completely," said Scott Anderson, senior economist with Wells Fargo Bank."


"The key, according to a number of economists, would be a recovery in the long-troubled housing industry."


"We need a normal housing market," said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at University of the Pacific in Stockton. "We have to have a construction industry that has a pulse."

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