Lawmakers cut reporting rules for California high-speed rail

FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015 file photo, dignitaries and VIP's line up to sign a portion of the rail at the California High Speed Rail Authority ground breaking event, Tuesday, in Fresno, Calif. A transportation bill passed as part of the Democratic state budget would reduce the reporting requirements for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which critics say is a move to lessen transparency on the controversial $68 billion project. The agency that oversees the project says it brings reporting in line with its annual budgeting and reporting cycles. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian, File)
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SACRAMENTO — A measure approved by legislative Democrats this week cuts the reporting requirements for the agency that oversees California’s $68 billion high-speed rail program, requiring spending reports to the Legislature every two years instead twice per year, prompting critics to charge that oversight is being scaled back.

The changes were included in bills that passed Monday out of the Senate and Assembly, both of which are controlled by Democrats.

“This budget trailer bill is gutting oversight and accountability requirements that were inserted when this Legislature committed itself to funding high-speed rail back in 2012,” said Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford. “This Legislature is supposed to strive for more oversight, not limit it.”

Republicans also sought Monday to block $500 million in state funding for high-speed rail that was part of a budget deal reached last year. But Democrats thwarted those efforts.

Lisa-Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said the change will make reporting more efficient, and the Legislature will still have access to detailed business plans that the agency is required to compile in even-numbered years. The legislative reports will come in odd-numbered years.

“It’s not about being less transparent. It’s actually about being more efficient in our transparency,” Alley said. “Streamlining them in this fashion is a win-win for everybody.”

The new reporting requirements were discussed in budget hearings before Monday’s vote, Alley said.

Current rules require the reports from the authority in March and November. But Alley said the March reports are due at the same time the agency is accepting public comments for its business plan, meaning the documents submitted to the Legislature quickly become outdated.

The bill also eliminates the requirement that the agency provide regular updates on staffing.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said the rail authority board already discusses these issues in public.

“It meets monthly, and at each of its monthly meetings in a public setting there is a review of all of their expenditures, their hirings, their firings, a complete update of the project. This happens on a monthly basis, so there is no lack of transparency,” he said.

Leno told lawmakers that if any concerns emerge in the next few months, lawmakers could reinstate the more frequent reports.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has joined lawsuits against the project, criticized the change. “I would say that is a huge step backward in government transparency, and if anything, the high-speed rail project has shown itself to be in desperate need of more transparency, not less,” he said.

Coupal said the project will be unable to meet the promises made to voters when they approved $10 billion in financing for it in 2008.

Gov. Jerry Brown strongly supports the rail project. He has not signed off on the $117.5 billion spending plan that Democrats approved, wanting to set spending lower. He continues to meet with Democratic legislative leaders in search of a deal before California’s fiscal year begins July 1.

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