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Asst Dean Carson Bruno on Sacramento's Missed Opportunity to Reform State Water and Transport Infrastructure | Real Clear Markets

Sacramento Kicks the California Can to Future Generations

Carson Bruno | April 21, 2017 | Real Clear Markets

In the last month, California Governor Jerry Brown declared the 5-plus year California drought officially over and Sacramento Democrats, with the help of one rogue Republican State Senator, passed a $52 billion gas and vehicle tax increase. Both actions were applauded by Sacramento leaders as fixing serious challenges facing the state, but in reality, California’s one-party rule squandered two excellent opportunities to ensure two serious problems plaguing the Golden State were sustainably resolved. At the end of the day, California will not be ready to weather the next drought and despite the new taxes, California’s transportation infrastructure will continue to crumble.

The Drought that Could Have Ended Future Droughts: A rainy and snowy winter and spring brought an end to one of the worst droughts on record. Despite the destruction the drought wrought on California, it did showcase the serious deficiencies with California’s water system: 1) an overlapping quagmire of water rights makes water allocations tenuous and vague, 2) the state fails to capture and store sufficient amounts of available water due to the system being almost wholly-dependent on snow-melt, 3) the regulatory environment and the lack of clearly defined and enforceable water rights renders water markets essentially nonexistent, and 4) a political environment that pits north against south and farmers against environmentalists and suburban homeowners. This system may have been sufficient to ensure water availability the last 100 years, but with California breaching 40 million people, precipitation patterns changing, new water demands for environmental protection efforts, and a southern shift in the state’s population center, these deficiencies, if left unreformed, will likely ensure every drought – regardless of severity – will be devastating to the state’s population, environment, and economy.

Sacramento leaders could have used this drought to learn from other major droughts to structurally reform their water system (namely Australia’s decade-long drought). Instead, however, California’s policymakers decided to pursue policies that nibble around the edges as they waited for the snow and rain to return. Only by separating out environmental protection water from agricultural, commercial, and residential water, clearly defining (and enforcing) water rights, streamlining regulations to allow water markets to flourish, and developing new sources of water through new storage, desalination, and advanced recycling will California be able to sustainably weather a future drought.

Following in Pat’s, not Jerry’s, Transportation Footsteps: There’s no debate: California’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling beneath our feet. The Golden State’s transportation system – championed by former California Governor Pat Brown – was the envy of the country and is a major reason why and how California became the nation’s most populous and economically-dominate state. Yet starting with Governor Jerry Brown’s first stint in Sacramento, California’s leaders failed to maintain and build on Pat Brown’s transportation legacy. Governors and legislative leaders, including the current one-party rule in Sacramento, have under-funded transportation maintenance and construction in state budget, raided funds meant for transportation infrastructure to plug budget holes in other areas, and pursued environmental policies that ignore the transportation realities of California – such as promoting the high-speed rail at the expense of regional transit or encouraging the sale of vehicles that use little to no gas when the entire funding mechanism for transportation infrastructure is designed around gas tax revenue. To top it off, money that does eventually make its way to transportation infrastructure maintenance is wasted via the inefficient and ineffective tendencies of the California Department of Transportation (or Caltrans).

Rather than address these structural deficiencies in the Golden State’s transportation infrastructure funding and spending, Sacramento leaders have spent the last two sessions twisting arms to reach the necessary two-third majority to pass new gas and vehicle taxes. Instead, California would have been wise to restructure the gas tax model toward a mileage fee model that better connects transportation infrastructure usage and funding, appropriate all the revenue the state currently collects for transportation purposes to transportation projects, abandon the high-speed rail in favor of regional public transit projects, and seriously reform how Caltrans operates to ensure more efficient spending. These solutions, not new or higher taxes, would have enabled California to ensure Pat Brown’s transportation vision is available for the next generation of Californians.

Missing an opportunity to make structural reforms is akin to political negligence; these two situations are prime example of such dereliction of duty by California’s leaders. Rather than do the difficult work to sustainably reform California’s water and transportation infrastructure systems, Sacramento chose to slap a Band-Aid on the problem for the next generation of Californians to address.

Carson Bruno is the assistant dean for admission and program relations at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonJFBruno.