As Mark Davis says: “Trump makes everyone better.” This week, President Trump started clawing back federal funds from California’s failed high-speed passenger rail project, following Gov. Newsom’s announcement of its cancellation. Well, not quite cancellation, the governor specifically said he wanted to prevent giving any money back to President Trump, so he proposed continuing construction to a couple of rural towns as a pretext. At the same time, desert rains are giving relief from drought, but California has failed to provide the water storage infrastructure to save this water against a dry day. In these two circumstances lies a golden opportunity.
Let’s be clear: The California governor’s announced plan has no resemblance to the approved high-speed rail system linking the Los Angeles basin and the San Francisco Bay area. It was that project that was invented to consume “shovel-ready” stimulus dollars back in 2010. As the New York Times reported back then, the US Conference of Mayors obliged by ginning up a report projecting billions in supposed economic growth through the magic of railroad travel.
Billions of dollars of new business and tens of thousands of jobs will flow to four hub cities — Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando and Albany, N.Y. — where plans for major high-speed rail networks are located, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Their report, released in Oklahoma City today, is the first attempt to put numbers on the widely held belief that high-speed rail can stimulate local economies and act as a driver of growth. The Obama administration has invested $8 billion in federal stimulus money to create 13 high-speed rail corridors.
The California project was pushed hard by Gov. Jerry Brown. Instead of following Interstate 5, he planned to run it through the politically weak farming communities of the Central Valley. Now the boondoggle is up and the state faces billions in urgent, real infrastructure needs. California has been ravaged by fires and faces a perpetual water shortage as the population greatly exceeds the aging water storage systems. Yet, the #LabCoatLeft and the left coastal elite despise dam construction as a matter of environmentalist faith.
As a result, much of the great bounty of water bestowed on California this year is running into the sea. The respite from drought will only last as long as the rains continue to fall. There will be no saving up for a dry day or dry year. Some Democrats in the California legislature recognize the threat to their perpetual rule and are talking about water allocations and storage infrastructure for the farmers they had cut off for years in the name of a favored fish.
“Water is not a Republican or a Democratic issue,” [freshman Democratic State Representative Josh] Harder said Friday, with the La Grange Dam — where some of the Tuolumne River is diverted into canals for both the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts — as a picturesque backdrop. The relatively tiny dam and its nearby big brother, Don Pedro Reservoir, represent “the foundation of water infrastructure in the valley,” he said — a symbolic place to discuss water policy as he begins a two-year congressional term.
“We need to make sure we’re all working together to advance the agenda of the Central Valley,” continued Harder, 32, of Turlock. “I was very encouraged to see some of the measures the Trump administration put forward on water.”
Now, there is an opportunity for President Trump to make California great again, and to do what government reformers on both sides of the aisle have claimed to advocate for decades. He has taken the remarkable step of actually insisting that government keep its promises, or else. As the Los Angeles Times‘ story on high-speed rail reports:
Many federal grants fund social welfare benefits, so there is a reluctance to penalize misspending by local government agencies if it injures beneficiaries, he said.
Almost never do those violations result in terminations, in part because federal agencies are set up to distribute money, not take it back, and they also lack funding for strict grant enforcement.
But the California rail project became highly politicized even before Trump took office. Congressional committees had previously explored ways to stop the project by rescinding the grants, but it was determined that only the executive branch could terminate a grant after Congress approved legislation for the funding.
President Trump has not responded with his “pen and phone.” Instead, the Federal Railroad Administration has properly initiated a formal process, starting with a Notice of Intent to Terminate Cooperative Agreement. The accompanying Department of Transportation press release notes:
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced today that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) intends to cancel $929 million in Federal grant funds yet to be paid for the California High-Speed Rail project envisioned to connect the L.A. Basin to the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition, the Department announced it is actively exploring every legal option to seek the return from California of $2.5 billion in Federal funds FRA previously granted for this now-defunct project. […]
On the other hand, President Trump has moved aggressively to give California farmers regulatory relief, taking away the environmentalists’ federal hammer. In October 2018, he signed a Presidential Memorandum on Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West. It identifies the problem and sets policy for all relevant executive agencies:
During the 20th Century, the Federal Government invested enormous resources in water infrastructure throughout the western United States to reduce flood risks to communities; to provide reliable water supplies for farms, families, businesses, and fish and wildlife; and to generate dependable hydropower. Decades of uncoordinated, piecemeal regulatory actions have diminished the ability of our Federal infrastructure, however, to deliver water and power in an efficient, cost‑effective way.
Unless addressed, fragmented regulation of water infrastructure will continue to produce inefficiencies, unnecessary burdens, and conflict among the Federal Government, States, tribes, and local public agencies that deliver water to their citizenry. To meet these challenges, the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce should, to the extent permitted by law, work together to minimize unnecessary regulatory burdens and foster more efficient decision-making so that water projects are better able to meet the demands of their authorized purposes.
The memorandum identifies a series of long-standing water projects in California that have been entangled in regulatory snares. President Trump ordered the agencies to switch from enabling environmentalist and no-growth advocates’ resistance to enabling congressionally authorized projects’ completion. That is, he is trying to ensure that what Congress and the president pass as legislation is actually implemented, rather than passed for show and then deliberately sabotaged by the agencies, allied advocacy groups, and the federal courts.
In furtherance of this effort to fulfill long-made federal and state promises, President Trump should offer to let California keep the money originally dedicated to passenger train systems if and only if they spend every dime on increasing water storage capacity inside their state. That would be large-scale construction work with a real long-term benefit for the state and region. It would also drive the left crazy and split them from their subjugated masses, placing Democrats clearly on the side of privileged elites and against farmers, minority farm workers, and the overwhelmingly minority urban poor, whose need for affordable, clean water would be supported by a Republican president.
At the same time, setting this precedent can have far greater benefits across all agencies and all levels of government. Stop and consider just how terrible it is that this should be remarked as a new thing, that no other president of either party has taken money back for non-performance, rather than using failure as justification for pouring even more money into the pit. A Los Angeles Times article, “Trump’s plan to take back $2.5 billion in California’s high-speed rail funding ‘unprecedented,’” revealed the larger implications:
“This does seem unprecedented,” said Eloise Pasachoff, a law professor specializing in federal grants at the Georgetown University Law Center. “It is common to take money back that grantees misspent. I am unaware of any time when an agency has threatened to terminate a grant because a grantee is not on target to achieve the substantive goals the grant was meant to achieve.”
Imagine actually insisting on money being spent effectively, according to approved program goals. If this catches on, we might get a real reinvention of government, which everyone knows Al Gore created. Invite him to the White House to share in the celebration, perhaps in the first year of President Trump’s second term, as the American people finally have reason to believe their tax dollars are being spent responsibly.