March 25, 2016

The Sacramento Bee: Proponents put brakes on California proposal to divert high-speed rail money

Proponents of a proposed initiative to divert high-speed rail funding to water projects said Friday that they are pulling their petitions from the street and instead will pursue a place on the 2018 ballot.

The campaign, led by Republican Bob Huff, the former Senate minority leader, and GOP Board of Equalization member George Runner, budgeted for $2.65 a signature, spokesman Hector Barajas said.

This week, amid soaring signature-gathering costs, the price rocketed to about $5 a signature. Rather than pay the spiraling rate, proponents are pulling back and targeting 2018, a non-presidential year where fewer Democratic voters, and presumably less supporters of high-speed rail, turn out to the polls.

“With 300,000 collected signatures we are continuing our qualification efforts, but in a swollen field of potential 2016 ballot initiatives that are daily bidding up the cost of signature acquisition to astronomical levels, the committee is looking at its option of qualifying the measure for the 2018 cycle,” Aubrey Bettencourt, the committee chair, said in a statement. “If we have all the signatures ready by the April 26 deadline for the 2016 ballot, we will submit.”

Proponents have raised about $484,000 through mid-week, state filings show.

A poll this week found support for rail at just above 50 percent among adults (similar to findings since the question was first asked in March 2012). Among people most likely to vote this year, it registered 44 percent support, the Public Policy Institute of California found.

The proposal seeks to redirect about $8 billion in bond money from the state’s high-speed rail project, estimated to cost $64 billion, to build water storage.

Critics, including farmers, fishermen and conservationists, said the decision to wait two years reflects a lack of support for the proposal.

“The proponents underestimated the ability of California voters to see through their poorly-crafted measure to rewrite California’s water laws to benefit a few special interest users,” said Tim Johnson, an opponent. “Nobody was fooled that this initiative is a Trojan Horse that has nothing to do with high speed rail and everything to do with a massive water grab that poses risk to agriculture, water users, and the environment.”