Bullet train fans learn CA enviros’ clout trumps building, trades unions

A few years ago, I began to think about how California’s state government operated in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a famous 1943 paper about how humans prioritize what’s important in their lives, starting with the basics — the physical requirements for survival — and moving up a list to the need at the top: self-actualization. That last part is a little too New Age-y for me, but as an intellectual exercise in trying to think about human motivations, Maslow’s hierarchy is darn smart.

My hierarchical theory for Sacramento goes like this:

Teacher unions > trial lawyers > environmentalists > other unions > Latino causes > gay causes > business interests > African-American causes > disabled causes.

It’s not a hierachy of needs, it’s a hierarchy of power. I think it goes a long way toward explaining how decisions are made by the Legislature.

Why teachers will eventually bail on bullet train as well

This is why I always assumed the bullet train would die before much of it was completed. If there were no funding from any source but the state government, then teachers unions — as a rival for state funds — would turn on the project. That there would be a lack of funding from anyone but state government has looked to be the case since 2010, when the LAO made clear that revenue guarantees were tantamount to promises of subsidies if things went bad, and thus were illegal under state law and couldn’t be offered to potential investors.

Here’s my piece from early 2012 in the L.A. Daily News headlined “How the teacher unions will kill the bullet train.”

But as it turned out, it wasn’t the teacher unions who first reminded bullet train advocates of Sacramento’s hierarchy of power. It was the environmentalists, as AP reported Friday afternoon, who are letting building and trades unions know their place in the state budget pecking order:

“SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to redirect $250 million from California’s landmark effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and spend it instead on his beleaguered bullet train has renewed debate about the future of the contentious project.

“In defending that part of the budget proposal he released this week, Brown pitched the $68 billion rail line as the perfect way to unite a fractured state and help California ‘pull together to form a greater community.’

“His proposal does appear to be uniting many lawmakers and interest groups, but perhaps not in the way the governor intended. Some Democrats who have supported high-speed rail have joined their Republican colleagues in rejecting Brown’s funding idea, and environmental groups are lukewarm at best on it.

“They say the money should be used to improve California’s air quality today and not go to a project that is decades away from being finished, if it is ever built at all.”

Sayonara, bullet train. It’s good to see you go. And, no, it hasn’t been fun while it lasted.

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