In a move that stunned, well, practically nobody, the Democrat-controlled state Senate voted down a set of amendments proposed by Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, intended to freeze money and halt work on California’s high-speed rail project and put the controversial effort in front of the state’s voters once again.
Vidak’s amendments to a bill by Assembly Member Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, would have put high-speed rail on the November 2014 ballot. But the amendments shot down Wednesday on a straight party-line vote, with 11 Republicans voting to take up the amendments and 24 Democrats voting to reject the amendments.
Frazier’s bill deals with allocating duties that used to be part of the now-defunct Business, Transportation and Housing Agency to the state’s new Transportation Agency.
Even Vidak’s staff had acknowledged that the amendments were a long shot, but after the vote the senator kept swinging at the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency tasked with developing the rail system.
“I was simply asking to let Californians re-vote on high-speed rail,” Vidak said. “Much has changed since Californians voted on this issue in 2008, and the people deserve the right to vote on whether billions of dollars of taxpayer money should be spent on” — wait for it — “this boondoggle.”
Voters approved Prop. 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure, in November 2008. But since then, the estimated cost to build the system to link the Bay Area and Los Angeles by way of Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley has roller-coastered from about $45 billion to as much as $98 billion in 2011 and, since early 2012, about $68 billion.
After thinking it over for a day, former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry has decided not to seek the state Senate seat vacated by Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio.
Autry, 60, said he is too busy right now between television shows and working on a mentoring program for troubled youths that he started six months ago.
But, he said in an interview today, his decision applies only to the May 21 special election that will temporarily fill the seat that came open when Rubio abruptly resigned on Feb. 22. Whoever wins that contest must stand for re-election next year – when Rubio’s term would have been up – and Autry said he will give serious consideration to running then.
“In 2014 I will take a serious look at this because I do want to help the state,” Autry said.
Autry, a Republican, said he had been approached by state Senate GOP leaders who told him their polling showed he could win the seat, even though the district is solidly Democratic.
Senate leaders were hoping Autry would run in the special election, which would be for the 16th Senate District as it was between 2002 and 2012. Political Data Inc., which collects voter information, said registration in the district was 50.7% Democratic and 28.6% Republican as of Feb. 22.
Because turnout is typically low in special elections, Republicans feel they have a good chance to take the district away from the Democrats.
But next year, the person in the seat must run again under newly drawn boundaries. That is the 14th state Senate District. The two districts are 88% the same, but Republicans say it would be tougher for them to take the seat because it would be a general election.
GOP leaders felt Autry, well known locally because of his Hollywood career and two terms of Fresno’s mayor, was the best person to win both this year and next.
On Friday, Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, former Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines and state Sen. Tom Berryhill made their pitch to Autry at a north Fresno Starbucks.
Autry said going into the meeting he was leaning against running, but Huff, Villines and Berryhill made some good points. He said he would think it over.
Word of Autry’s potential run sent local Republican leaders into opposite camps.
Former Fresno City Council Member Jerry Duncan, for instance, enthusiastically backed Autry and said he would make a great senator. But businessman Tal Cloud took the opposite viewpoint, and even authored a memo on Fresno’s borrowing during Autry’s mayoral terms. His conclusion: the city’s current financial troubles rest right at Autry’s feet.
Autry has kept mostly a low profile since leaving the mayor’s office. He hosted a weekday talk radio show for a little more than two years, leaving the air in December 2010 to return to acting and making movies.
This year, Autry has appeared in two episodes of the CW Network show “Hart of Dixie,” and Autry said today that he has been asked back for next season. In addition, Autry said he is filming a show locally called “Choices.” But his biggest current project, he said, is the mentoring program he started for youths at Fresno County’s juvenile hall.
Autry’s decision likely clears the way on the Republican side for Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak, who a week ago said he would run and who has been busy raising money.
In addition to Vidak, Shafter City Council Member Fran Florez – a Democrat – said Friday via Twitter that she is running. Florez is the mother of Dean Florez, who held the Senate seat before Rubio.
Besides Vidak and Florez, the only other person to say he is running is Democrat Alfred Benavides, a former Hanford Joint Union High School District trustee. But Francisco Ramirez Jr. and Fresno resident John Estrada have pulled campaign papers, according to the Fresno County elections website. Neither Ramirez nor Estrada list a political party – though Estrada has been a Democrat in the past.
Other names mentioned include Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez, a former Rubio aide and newly elected Kern County supervisor, and Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, also a Democrat. On the Republican side, Kerman Mayor Gary Yep has said he’s looking at a run.
Perez, who is well liked by Democratic leaders, is expected to make a decision on a run next week.
As if it wasn’t clear to this point, Gov. Jerry Brown in his State Of The State address today once again talked of reforming the California Environmental Quality Act.
Name-checking the 43-year-old state law was cheered by three San Joaquin Valley legislators, two of them Republicans, the third a key Senate Democrat.
Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, has made it clear he wants serious reform to the law, and he is chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, which would hear any reform proposals.
The law, better known as CEQA, is a central tenant of California’s environmental protections. But is also under fire for slowing major projects and for stymieing infill development projects.Rubio specifically mentioned a proposed infill project at L and San Joaquin streets in downtown Fresno that has been halted by a CEQA lawsuit.
Brown — who has previously stated the need for CEQA reform — once again seemed to agree, this time using the annual gubernatorial address.
“We also need to rethink and streamline our regulatory procedures, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act,” according to Brown’s prepared speech. “Our approach needs to be based more on consistent standards that provide greater certainty and cut needless delays.”
Rubio said he was encouraged that Brown chose to not only to bring up CEQA in the speech, but also to add a bit of detail on providing certainty and cutting delays.
“Clearly, it is a priority for the governor and provides great momentum for a coalition that is forming to move forward in streamlining CEQA,” he said.
He said Brown’s support will help embolden the coalition. He said legislation is currently in the works, with plans to introduce it next month ahead of the Feb. 22 deadline for filing bills.
Assembly Member Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, said she wanted “a more detailed plan for spurring job creation” from Brown, but was “pleased that he at least wants to reform CEQA and provide more certainty to businesses.”
State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, dedicated a whole paragraph to CEQA reform in a written statement.“I believe that the goals of CEQA are valuable to our communities, but reform is needed so that special interests can no longer subvert the system by using it as a tool to unnecessarily delay development through litigation,” he said.
Now, all that remains is pushing that legislation through the Assembly and state Senate and then to Brown.
Many environmentalists will work to kill any such CEQA reform proposals, and might even find allies among the Valley’s agriculture community, some of whom have filed CEQA suits to stop the state’s proposed high-speed rail project.