Orange County Register: Choose Cooperation over Confrontation

by Senator Patricia Bates
Monday, February 6, 2017

The 2016 presidential election is over. With a new president and a new Congress, California’s leaders now face a choice: be at the table or be on the menu.

When I watched Gov. Jerry Brown deliver his State of the State speech in Sacramento recently, I agreed when he said, “When California does well, America does well.” Even though one political party controls the federal government and another controls California’s state government, it behooves elected leaders in both governments to try to work together whenever possible.

If we fail to do so and pursue confrontation instead, it could put vulnerable Californians at risk. For example, California’s state budget receives more than $105 billion in federal dollars, which covers vital programs including unemployment insurance, public schools, higher education and health care programs such as Medi-Cal. Needlessly provoking the new presidential administration with overheated rhetoric — and the administration responding in turn — will just lead to more gridlock than ever before.

So I took some comfort when the governor said in his State of the State that he can work with the president on repairing and upgrading the state’s transportation infrastructure, which is especially important to Orange County. There is no debate about the need to fix our aging roads and bridges as we can sure use more federal investment — and the jobs that come with it.

Yet the governor continues to insist that the Legislature impose massively higher gas taxes on drivers. His proposal is a 10-year plan to raise $4.2 billion annually via gas and vehicle tax increases, including a “road improvement charge” of $65 per vehicle. This is essentially the same proposal that did not make it through the Legislature last year.

The state can fix our roads by diverting money from an unnecessary high-speed train that continues to rise in cost, eliminating inefficiencies at Caltrans and using designated transportation dollars for their original purpose. California already spends three times the national average on maintenance per mile of roadway, yet our roads rate among the nation’s worst in pavement condition and congestion. It is clear that we need smarter spending choices, not higher taxes.

In his speech, the governor portrayed California as an example that other states should follow. However, he did not mention how he would address an uneven economy that benefits too few Californians, where coastal communities tend to have lower unemployment than inland communities. Consider this — 45 percent of the net employment growth since the recession has been in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. Such a two-tiered California is dangerous to our state’s economic future, and therefore to the well-being of all Californians.

There was also no mention about addressing housing costs that are among the nation’s highest, which have pushed many people to live in communities far from their jobs. Our state cannot realize our full potential unless more Californians can actually afford a decent place to live.

Finally, the governor did not say in his speech how he would pay for California’s growing unfunded public pension liabilities, where every extra dollar spent on pensions is one less dollar for public services. These liabilities are estimated to be at least $202.8 billion among the state’s three pension systems. We cannot put off this problem indefinitely.

That is why cooperation between Democrats and Republicans — at both the state and federal level — is critically important in resolving these issues. Such progress is not impossible, as demonstrated when both parties worked together to pass a rainy-day fund that will help California weather a future economic recession.

The fact of the matter is that the bonds between California and the rest of the nation are deeply intertwined. In some areas such as transportation and water, federal cooperation is critical for continued progress.

That is why I hope the governor and California’s legislative leaders will extend a hand of cooperation to the federal government, and vice versa. The issues are too important for both sides to engage in an unproductive war of words over the next two years. In such a war, everyone loses.

Published at The Orange County Register