High-speed rail: A green light for Molly Munger

The morning after the California Senate approved funding for high-speed rail, the Sacramento Bee carried a front-page photo of Senate president Darrell Steinberg giving a double fist pump of victory. As glad as Steinberg appeared to be, though, it’s hard to imagine that Molly Munger, the Pasadena civil rights attorney, wasn’t even happier. By approving high-speed rail, legislative Democrats and Jerry Brown have just given away their best argument against her school-funding measure on the November ballot.

To understand why, you have to get beyond the media’s careless habit of lumping Munger’s proposal with Jerry Brown’s rival budget measure as competing “tax measures.”

Yes, both measures do temporarily raise taxes — Brown’s on everyone, Munger’s on households in the upper half of incomes, both with the heaviest increase put on the very wealthy. But the measures differ sharply in purpose and aspiration.

Brown’s measure is about eating your spinach. It raises taxes temporarily in the hopes of stabilizing the budget at the current austerity levels of state spending. It aims at keeping things from getting worse.

Munger’s measure, on the other hand, injects only a part of the revenue it raises into Sacramento — to help pay down debt and relieve some of the pressure of interest payments on the state budget. Mostly it aims to work a revolution in school funding for the purpose of closing the achievement and opportunity gap that is California’s most pressing challenge.

Munger’s measure would route the new money around state and district bureaucracies, keeping it off the bargaining table, and give it directly to schools, where parents would be given a larger role in deciding how to spend it to benefit their own children. Munger is inviting California, after years of austerity and muddling, to think big.

For months Brown and his union allies have been bashing Munger for irresponsibility. California needed to put first things first, they said. New tax dollars should go to putting the state’s budget house in order, not tackling problems in big and bold ways. Munger’s measure came at the wrong time, they charged, threatening confusion and the defeat of Brown’s more responsible approach.

And now, after the high-speed rail vote, Californians understand they didn’t mean a word of it.

By any reasonable reckoning, the high-speed rail plan approved by the Legislature is not ready for prime time. As both the Legislative Analyst and independent observers have pointed out, the state doesn’t have a clue about how to finance the project. High-speed rail, which will raise greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades, will compete for funding with the urban transit projects of greater economic and environmental value that California so badly needs to deal both with congestion and its climate goals. It tells you all you need to know about the viability of the plan that the senators most knowledgeable about high speed rail (and among its biggest boosters for years) voted against it.

But reasonable reckoning did not win out. Nor did Brown’s previous call for “a modicum of stoicism.” What carried the day, at least rhetorically, was the injunction to think big.

“I think what we did today,” Steinberg declaimed, “is going to be seen over many years, and many decades, as a turning point in California, a time when we decided to say ’yes’ to hope, ’yes’ to progress, ’yes’ to the future.”

If California can put aside caution and budget restraint to pursue a big and expensive frill like high-speed rail, can there be any doubt about the message the state’s leaders are implicitly sending when it comes to dealing with schools, the state’s (and voters’) highest priority, and to Munger’s call to revitalize them?

To the future! they are saying. Go, Molly, go.