Reviewing the 2008 November California propositions — Prop 1A

Okay, the first in the series.

Basic information about Proposition 1A — “SAFE, RELIABLE HIGH-SPEED PASSENGER TRAIN BOND ACT.”

Umbrella yes-vote site.

Umbrella no-vote site.

LA Times story from today about the proposition.

It’s somehow appropriate that the rundown begins with this one, because in a way it encapsulates a slew of different political impulses from across my adult voting life in one place. And it does so in a way that leaves me, ultimately, dissatisfied one way or another. Such is the nature of politics sometimes — it’s not a question of what is clearly the best choice, but simply the most necessary under the circumstances.

On the one hand, this is a slam-dunk. High-speed rail for California? An expansion and improvement of the train system throughout the state? New rail corridors? And so on, and so forth — in essence, the kind of dream I’ve always had for myself as a resident of this state who quite happily still does not use a car. I’ve travelled up and down the state by train before, and given the delays I encountered then, just the idea of it is thrilling, absolutely no question.

And yet…we’re talking bonds.

A little history first of all — when I first got to vote back in 1990, I remember asking my dad for his general thoughts on the issues of the time, as well as voting in general, and he told me that he was never one to vote for bonds, feeling that by accruing debt in that fashion it wasn’t the best financial burden for both the state and its people. This always made a certain amount of sense to me, and while I’ve never voted down *all* bonds, I tend to look at them with skepticism.

In contrast there is, I think, a certain clarity — ‘honesty’ is perhaps too loaded a word — about raising taxes for a project. In essence, it lays it all out on the table — ‘in order to get this, we collectively pay for it like so.’ And in terms of transportation improvement, there are two tax-based measures in the area I can refer to directly. The first is on the ballot in LA, Measure R — I won’t be able to vote on it, but I’m deeply interested in its passage, as it will be funding for a long-needed infrastructure upgrade for the area. The second is Orange County’s own transportation funding measure, Measure M, originally passed in the early nineties and then reextended a couple of years ago for some decades to come.

In comparison, if you review the language urging support for Prop 1A, one of the big selling points is that this isn’t being funded by new taxes but by bonds instead. Now, I should indicate something here too — while I look at bond propositions in general with a gimlet eye, the idea of bonds and credit I have no problem with. They can and do make sense in many contexts and are regularly used by the state for a variety of purposes. The point is, though, that they have to be paid for at some point, somehow.

But of course, what are we all now living through, and what is the current economic crunch all about? Credit and the lack thereof on the widest possible scale. California is just able to squeak by with a temporary bond issue later this week just to pay the regular bills, for instance. Beyond that? When you consider that the state budget this year was heavily delayed, and that the judgment was that a lot of things were essentially kicked down the road to be settled in the future, overall one gets a sense of continually pushing things off to the future — a path that until recently was the pattern for our economy overall, and which now seems to be changing rapidly.

So I find myself somewhat concerned. If this was a full-on tax, my debate wouldn’t be one, and I’d almost certainly be voting for it. If this wasn’t an issue that impacted me or I judged to be particularly important, my debate wouldn’t be one, and I’d almost certainly be voting against it. Right now, I find myself somewhere in the middle.

There is one conditional factor, however. Allowing for the fact that there’s a lot of things that may go absolutely nowhere if he is elected, Barack Obama has indirectly touched on this issue via his stated energy policy, given how it dovetails with many of the points the proponents of 1A are trying to make on that front with regard to greenhouse gases and other points of environmental impact. 1A further is meant to coordinate with funding from other sources, and there’s been much talk, if no specifics, about how an Obama administration should invest in improving the national infrastructure, especially in light of the current financial situation. In ways, there could be a perfect confluence of political necessity, enlightened self-interest and economic stimulation at work here.

But, of course, it might not happen. We have to assume that the bond issue, if passed, would be all there definitely is.

At this point I will be voting YES for Prop 1A, though with all the caveats and concerns noted above. Ultimately, I do think this is worth some sort of specific commitment on the part of the voters and the state government. But I will wish there was an alternate way.

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