As Gov. Jerry Brown barrels ahead with high-speed trains, he could find that his quest for a legacy derails the November tax measure he desperately needs to repair the state budget.
For his entire political career, Brown has lived in the shadows of his visionary father, Pat, the governor from 1959-67 who brought us the State Water Project and the master plan for California higher education.
The younger Brown has always been a big thinker in search of his own legacy. But, after his first gubernatorial tenure, from 1975-83, he was best remembered as Gov. Moonbeam, the ideas guy who could never deliver, and for his appointment of Rose Bird to the state Supreme Court, which backfired when voters recalled the chief justice and two of her Brown-appointed colleagues in 1986.
We were told during the 2010 gubernatorial election that Brown, then 72, had politically and personally matured, that he was more down to earth, that he had learned from his intervening years in local government as mayor of Oakland.
He promised an end to budget gimmickry, a vow he has only partially fulfilled, and to return California to fiscal balance. As part of that plan he will ask voters in November for permission to raise needed taxes.
To bolster his case, the governor who slept on the floor of a sparsely furnished Sacramento apartment and drove around in a Plymouth during his last tenure has demonstrated austerity this time by taking away half of the state-employee cellphones and asking workers to accept hour and salary reductions.
But he undermines the frugality image by continuing to champion a financially indefensible plan to link the major metropolitan areas of the state with high-speed rail. In his search for his own legacy he risks voter support for his tax measure.
Brown should exercise caution. While he strives to be remembered like his late father for the capital projects he leaves behind, defeat of the tax measure could so badly undermine his financial recovery plans and lead to the gutting of the state's public education system that his legacy might instead resemble that of his former chief of staff, Gray Davis.
Whether voters in November see the connection -- and contradiction -- between Brown's demand for more taxes and his reckless exuberance for spending billions on high-speed rail remains to be seen. A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of registered voters suggests that's a very real risk.
To be sure, Brown begins with very strong support for his tax plan, which would raise $9 billion annually through a four-year quarter-cent sales tax increase and by hiking income taxes on the wealthy for seven years. Fifty-nine percent support it, while 36 percent oppose. And they look very favorably on his plan to cut state employee work hours to save money.
But when it comes to high-speed rail, voters, who narrowly approved a plan in 2008, want another crack at it. And, if given a chance to vote again, they would emphatically reject it, 59 percent to 33 percent, according to the survey. The voters polled say the state has bigger priorities right now.
If money is to be spent on rail transportation, a plurality would rather see it go to local improvements. More than two-thirds say they would hardly ever or never ride high-speed trains between Southern California and the Bay Area. Sixty percent say they would rather fly or drive.
When voters four years ago authorized issuing up to $9 billion in bonds for high-speed rail, they made it subject to legislative approval. Now, Brown and Democratic leaders in the Legislature are trying to fast-track approval of nearly $3 billion of those bonds to kick-start the project -- even though they have no idea where most of the money for the system will come from.
It's a risky gambit. The governor is seeking legislative approval for high-speed rail bonds roughly four months before voters cast ballots on his tax measure. Does he really want to anger them just when he needs them the most?