At last week’s budget press conference, Governor Jerry Brown warned of the threat of a recession and the risk to California’s budget from federal health care legislation, but the details of his 2017-18 budget plans failed to mirror his cautionary rhetoric.
The Brown administration decided to (kind of, sort of) tackle the state’s massive and growing level of unfunded liabilities – i.e., the hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer-backed debt to fund retirement promises made to the state’s government employees. It’s best to curb our enthusiasm, however. The governor didn’t have much of a choice.
Even close observers of the California High-Speed Rail Authority have struggled to track developments for the state’s planned bullet train. The debacle began in November 2008, when 52.7% of California voters approved Proposition 1A and triggered serious planning for what could be the most expensive construction project in human history. With that kind of money at stake, unions were obviously inspired to be part of this boondoggle.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority has become justly notorious for backroom deals, secretive administrative actions, and lack of transparency. But most Californians are at least vaguely aware that the project has been mismanaged and misrepresented.
Proposition 1A – placed on the ballot by the California State Legislature – authorized the State of California to borrow $9.95 billion to begin design and construction of a $45 billion complete high-speed rail system linking San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento. Including interest payments, the Proposition 1A commitment was estimated to be $19.4 billion to $23.2 billion for bonds to be paid back over 30 years. According to Proposition 1A, that money borrowed by the state was supposed to be supplemented with significant funding from the federal government, private investors, and municipal governments.
Proposition 1A also promised that the bullet train would be able to travel non-stop from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours, 40 minutes. Presumably many Californians who voted for it – including the 78.4% of San Francisco voters who approved it – imagined a fast train speeding between two world-class cities along the median of Interstate 5. They were wrong.
Here’s the current appalling status of California High-Speed Rail:
1. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has spent $587 million on consultants as of September 30, 2013. The California State Treasurer has sold at least $703 million worth of bonds (Buy America Bonds and perhaps others) for California High-Speed Rail as of May 13, 2013.
2. The estimated cost has been dramatically revised. Instead of being $45 billion for the entire system, it is now $68 billion just for the line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the high-speed rail will be “blended” with other commuter rail lines at the beginning and end of the route. One group has estimated that the entire system may exceed $200 billion if bond interest is included and the federal government does not provide additional grants.
3. The California State Treasurer cannot sell the Proposition 1A state bonds because a judge determined in November 2013 that the California High-Speed Rail Authority failed to comply with the law. While the California High-Speed Rail Authority has already obtained $2,942,000,000 from the federal government, possibly under false pretenses of a commitment to matching funds, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is intent on stopping further grants until the Authority gets its act together. No private investors have emerged – corporations want to GET money from the Authority through contracts, not give it money to be squandered. Cities in the San Joaquin Valley where the line will be built first have no money to invest in it – Fresno is nearly bankrupt.
4. Governor Jerry Brown desperately included $250 million in his 2014-15 budget for California High-Speed Rail to be obtained from “Cap and Trade” allowances paid by emitters of greenhouse gases as part of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (Assembly Bill 32 or AB 32). But the project is expected to increase greenhouse gas emissions during four years of initial construction. The Authority claims it will earn the Cap and Trade funds because offsets from its tree planting program (as well as other activities such as “cleaner school buses and water pumps in Central Valley communities”) will allow it to produce “zero net emissions.”
5. With the “blended” plan, there are serious challenges to achieving the 2 hour 40 minute travel time required in law. An analysis claiming that the time can be met includes the train going over the Tehachapi mountain range (north of Los Angeles) at 150+ miles per hour. There is idle talk about digging a long tunnel for the bullet train through the seismically-active San Gabriel Mountains from Palmdale to Los Angeles, but this is probably to lull citizens of Santa Clarita into believing the rail won’t go through their town.
6. To the surprise and confusion of hipster high-speed rail supporters in San Francisco and Los Angeles, this bullet train will be a local, with stops at least in Merced, Fresno, Hanford or Visalia, Bakersfield, and Palmdale. In June 2013, the Authority awarded a $970 million contract (with provisions for an additional $55 million) to Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons (a joint venture) to design and build the first 29-miles of the high-speed rail between Madera and Fresno by February 2018. People are supposed to be able to ride the high-speed rail between Merced and Palmdale by 2022.
7. The California High-Speed Rail Authority erred by awarding the first design-build contract for a 29-mile stretch that includes 25 miles in one segment assigned for environmental review (Merced to Fresno) and four miles in another segment assigned for a different environmental review (Fresno to Bakersfield). While it received full environmental clearance for the 25-mile stretch, it has not received clearance for the 4-mile stretch. In December 2013, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected a secretive request from the Authority for an exemption to environmental review. If it can’t get the federal exemption, the Authority’s design-build contract is in jeopardy.
8. Owners of 370 parcels that the California High-Speed Rail Authority needs for the first 29-mile stretch are apparently resisting or holding out on selling their property. At last report in mid-December, the Authority had allegedly closed escrow on five parcels. The Authority has now received authorization from the California Public Works Board to possess two parcels through eminent domain.
Based on these eight points alone, who would still be eager to proceed with this project besides Governor Jerry Brown, the corporations seeking contracts, and a scattering of citizens committed to various leftist causes related to urban planning and environmentalism? Unions.
In a backroom deal, without any public deliberation or vote, the board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority negotiated and executed a Project Labor Agreement (called a “Community Benefit Agreement”) with the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. This agreement gives unions a monopoly on construction trade work and certain construction-related professional services.
In a January 16, 2013 email about the Project Labor Agreement to the former chairman of Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission, the Small Business Advocate of the California High Speed Rail Authority stated the following:
The Community Benefits Agreemeent (CBA) is an internal administrative document that was not necessarily intended to be circulated for public comment, however, that doesn’t mean you cannot provide me your input. The document was added to Construction Package #1 and Addendum 8 and I’ve attached it herein for your convenience. It includes regulatory compliance and is being reviewed by the Federal Rail (sic) Administration.
There is no evidence available to show that the Federal Railroad Administration approved the Project Labor Agreement, as required by law. But the final version of the agreement was signed in August 2013. No board member or administrator of the California High-Speed Rail Authority has commented in a public meeting about the agreement that will give unions control of most of the claimed 100,000 job-years of employment over a five-year period.
When State Senator Andy Vidak, with Congressman David Valadao, held a press conference critical of California High-Speed Rail on January 17, 2014 at the site of the eventually-to-be-demolished Fresno Rescue Mission, there were protesters: construction union leaders, lobbyists, public relations officials, and activists. The Fresno Bee reported this about the press conference:
In a news release prior to the announcement, Vidak indicated that his goal is to kill the bullet train. He tempered his in-person remarks, however, as he faced a crowd that included both high-speed rail critics from his home area in Kings County and a couple dozen representatives of labor unions who support the project…Rail supporters, some clad in hard hats and safety vests, booed Vidak as they wielded their own signs proclaiming high-speed rail as “good for the local economy, good for air quality and good for jobs.”
The Fresno Business Journal reported this about the press conference:
Dillon Savory, an advocate representing several local unions, commented after the event that high-speed rail would not only provide needed jobs, but it would help improve the Valley’s air, which has been heavily polluted this winter. Also, the cost of roadwork in the area is about double the cost of high-speed rail, making road construction less cost effective, Savory said. Savory criticized the anti-high-speed rail forced for trying to pit rail against water. He said the greater issue is putting people back to work with decent paying jobs. He said many union workers are only finding temporary work for about two weeks at a time. That is not putting food on the table, he said.
In 2013, Savory was the manager for the successful union-backed campaign to defeat a ballot measure (Measure G) supported by the Mayor of Fresno that would have allowed the city to outsource garbage collection. The political professionals are getting involved.
When the groundbreaking ceremony occurs for California High-Speed Rail, perhaps in an abandoned Madera County cornfield seized through eminent domain by the Authority, expect thousands of construction union workers to be bused in to block and neutralize any protesters. Governor Brown cannot suffer any more embarrassment over this boondoggle and debacle.
California Streets and Highway Code Section 2704.09 (implemented by California voters in November 2008 as Proposition 1A, as authorized by Assembly Bill 3034 (Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century)
Top-40 Donors to Campaign to Convince California Voters to Borrow $10 Billion to Start Building High-Speed Rail
Election Results by County: Proposition 1A (2008)
May 7, 2008 Senate Appropriations Committee legislative analysis for Assembly Bill 3034 (source of estimated costs of bonds, including interest payments)
July 2012 – California’s High-Speed Rail Realities: Briefly Assessing the Project’s Construction Cost, Debt Prospects, and Funding (“The Realistic – No Additional Federal Funding scenario results in a total debt burden of $203 billion between 201 3 and 2058.”)
June 2013 – Contribution of the High-Speed Rail Program to Reducing California’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Levels (includes “plans to plant thousands of new trees across the Central Valley” and “cleaner school buses and water pumps in Central Valley communities”)
November 15, 2013 – Project Update Report to the California State Legislature (source of report that $587 million was spent on consultants)
Vidak Rails Against Bullet-Train Plan, Met by Bipartisan Crowd at Fresno Event – Fresno Bee – January 17, 2014
Vidak Calls for High-Speed Rail Revote – Fresno Business Journal – January 17, 2014
California High-Speed Rail Scam
Past Articles in www.UnionWatch.org on Unions and California High-Speed Rail
Unions Creep Closer to Monopolizing California High-Speed Rail Construction – December 6, 2012
Watch Union Official’s Rude Antics at California High-Speed Rail Conference – January 15, 2013
Unions Await Fantastic Return on High-Speed Rail Political Investments – January 22, 2013
Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.
When California Governor Jerry Brown unveiled his latest state budget, he explained that as the budget begins to generate surpluses, the state will finally begin to dismantle the “Wall of Debt” that has been accumulating. Whether or not Gov. Brown’s budget will generate surpluses, this year or any time soon, is an open question. But just how much debt is there?
The first thing to remember when considering California’s debt is that the only meaningful number is the combination of state and local government debt. Because some states have relatively centralized government functions, and others devolve most government services to the localities. California is one of those states that has a relatively decentralized system of state and local governance, and Gov. Brown’s actions – such as his transferring responsibility for tens of thousands of state prison inmates to County correctional institutions – increase this tendency.
For example, in a recent study released by the California Public Policy Center (CPPC) entitled “The California Budget Crisis – Causes and Recommendations,” there is a chart that amalgamates all state and local government spending (chart 2). This chart shows that in the last fiscal year, only $47.5 billion was retained by the state government for direct expenditures. Everything else flowed through to cities, counties, and local agencies. These local expenditures totaled $242 billion, more than five times as much.
Another vital consideration when calculating debt is to correctly define it. Because the number Brown used, 34.7 billion (ref. California Budget Plan Introduction, Figure 3), only referred to short term borrowing by the state. “Deferred payments to schools,” “Loans from Special Funds,” “Unpaid costs to local governments,” “Borrowing from local government,” “Deferred Medi-Cal Costs,” “Deferral of state payroll costs,” “Deferred payments to CalPERS,” “Borrowing from transportation funds,” etc.
This is not the whole “Wall of Debt.” This is just the short-term payables incurred by the state government. What about bonds? Isn’t that money owed by taxpayers? Again referring to the recent CPPC study, on chart 9 there is a listing of known state and local debt. The primary components are State General Obligation Bonds totaling $80.7 billion, Local General Obligation Bonds totaling $177.6 billion, and Trust Fund Loans of $28 billion. In all, this long-term borrowing adds another $286.3 billion to California’s Wall of Debt.
Further adding to California’s Wall of Debt are the “unfunded” retirement pension and health care liabilities. One may argue that the entire future pension and health care liability is not truly debt, because future revenues will fund future obligations. But by any generally accepted accounting principle, the unfunded portion is debt. This is because to the extent the liability incurred for future pension payments is for work already performed – i.e., to the extent these future pensions have already been earned – there must be sufficient funds invested to cover 100% of the eventual payments due. And using the state’s own numbers (ref. California Budget Plan Introduction, Figure 4), the unfunded pension and health care liability adds another $181.2 billion to California’s Wall of Debt. But it’s likely much more.
First of all, the $181.2 billion of debt recognized in Brown’s budget plan does not include unfunded pension and health care debt incurred by any of California’s cities or counties who do not participate in either CalPERS or CalSTRS. Since these two biggest pension funds only cover about two-thirds of California’s state and local government workers, you have to increase this officially recognized unfunded amount by 50%, which adds another $90 billion to the tab. Next, as exhaustively analyzed in a 2011 study authored by Stanford Professor (and former Assemblymember) Joe Nation, entitled “PENSION MATH: How California’s Retirement Spending is Squeezing the State Budget,” if the rate of return on investment currently used by the major pension funds is dropped from 7.5% to 5.5% or even 4.5%, the size of these unfunded liabilities could increase by another $200 to $300 billion.
To summarize, here a very rough estimate of the real “Wall of Debt” confronting California’s taxpayers:
- $34.7 billion for short-term borrowing by the state
- $30 billion for short-term borrowing by local cities, counties and agencies (very rough estimate, probably conservative)
- $80.7 billion for State General Obligation Bonds
- $177.6 billion for Local General Obligation Bonds
- $28 billion for Trust Fund Loans
- $181.2 billion for unfunded retirement and health care liabilities – CalPERS & CalSTRS participants only
- $90 billion for unfunded retirement and health care liabilities – independent pension plan participants
- $250 billion – impact of lower investment returns on retirement pension funds (quite likely a conservative estimate)
Grand total: $872 billion, or $23,000 per California resident, or $87,000 per California household.
It is important to emphasize that even using official estimates, about half of the total state and local government debt in California is to fund retirement benefits to government workers. And for anyone who is skeptical that it may be necessary to recognize (and eventually pay) an additional $250 billion in unfunded retirement health care and pension liabilities for California’s state and local government workers, please review the new GASB accounting regulations and the new Moody’s credit rating criteria, both set to take effect in 2014.
When Gov. Jerry Brown suggests that California’s state government is positioning itself to eliminate the so-called “Wall of Debt,” he’d be well advised to consider just how big that wall really is – especially when you remember that the only meaningful calculation of how much California state taxpayers owe must also include the amounts they owe its local governments.