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Train to Nowhere: Full Speed Ahead
Vote for high-speed rail pushes California over a fiscal cliff.


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John Fund

Republican senator Tony Strickland responded by pointing to the state’s perennial budget deficits and asked why Democrats would put high-speed rail ahead of the pressing need to provide health care for children, prevent soaring increases in university tuition, and make necessary infrastructure repairs.

“I do believe Californians will remember in November — they will remember how out of touch you are in your spending priorities when you ask them to dig deeper,” Strickland told his colleagues. “They will see you spent money we simply don’t have.”

Passage of the high-speed-rail bill could also make it difficult for Governor Brown to achieve his other goals. The governor and Democratic legislators are backing a large tax increase on the November ballot, and they are risking voter backlash by spending money on the choo-choo project at a time when voter priorities are elsewhere. A new Field Poll finds that a full 21 percent of current supporters of Brown’s tax package will be less likely to support it with the bullet-train funding approved. The tax package is already hovering at just above 50 percent support in polls. The silver lining of Friday’s vote is that it may make Brown’s November measure the ninth straight tax increase rejected by California voters.

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Voters have absorbed the reality that California’s taxes are already sky-high. The top rate of its individual income tax is 10.3 percent, the second-highest in the country. A single middle-class worker earning just $48,000 pays a top rate of 9.3 percent, which is higher than the rate for millionaires in 47 other states. The Golden State is a Golden Turkey for business: Its regulatory and tax climate for business is the third-worst in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation. It’s no wonder that 4 million more people have fled the state since the early 1990s than have moved to California from other states. (Immigration is the only reason that the state’s population is stable or slightly growing.)

Even former supporters of high-speed rail have soured on the idea of a train as an economic boon to the state. Former San Francisco state senator Quentin Kopp, until 2010 a member of the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority board, told the Los Angeles Times that he now views the project as “the great train robbery.” He notes that his former colleagues approved the bill (without a vote to spare) only after they nabbed federal pork for local transit in exchange for their vote.

It was wrenching to watch the California state legislature — for which I worked in the 1980s — as it led California over a fiscal cliff. The high-speed-rail line that was approved on Friday is a train to nowhere. And it’s offering Californians a nonstop ticket to their future as residents of a homegrown version of Greece.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.



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