Dan Walters: Transportation conflict resurfaces for Gov. Jerry Brown

dwalters@sacbee.comJuly 3, 2012 

Dan Walters

Assembly Bill 1458 is a blast from Gov. Jerry Brown's political past.

The measure by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, would undo a provision of the "governmental reorganization plan" that Brown has submitted to the Legislature.

It deals with the California Transportation Commission, which controls billions of dollars in transportation construction.

Brown's plan, due to go into effect today, would consolidate a number of state agencies and hitherto independent commissions into a new array of superagencies. He says it would eliminate duplication and inefficient overlaps and give taxpayers more bang for their bucks.

Politically, it's a component of Brown's campaign to prove to voters that he is spending their money wisely and thus, he hopes, persuade them to approve multibillion-dollar increases in sales and income taxes in November.

One impact would be to fold the commission into a reconstituted transportation agency and thus make it subject to control by whomever Brown appointed to head the agency. That doesn't sit well with many stakeholders in the complex world of transportation financing. It would also, in effect, reverse legislation that Brown signed 35 years ago to resolve one of his most intense controversies.

When Brown took office in 1975, one of his first acts was to sharply curtail highway spending and lay off thousands of Department of Transportation employees.

Shortly thereafter, he appointed Adriana Gian-turco, an outspoken opponent of freeways, as Caltrans director, igniting an intense political struggle with legislators of both parties.

The state Highway Commission sided with the Legislature, but at the time, it had virtually no staff and was dependent on Caltrans for information.

The conflict intensified when journalists, including yours truly, revealed that Caltrans had been amassing huge amounts of unspent highway funds while Gian-turco claimed that a lack of money was holding up construction.

A series of confrontational legislative hearings ensued. Gianturco's chief legislative critic, late Assemblyman Walter Ingalls, D-Riverside, wrote a 1977 bill to rename the Highway Commission the California Transportation Commission, fold several other transportation boards into it, and give it independent staff and more authority, along with local governments, over transportation spending.

Gianturco urged Brown to veto the bill as a punitive diminution of her – and his – executive power, but he signed it at the last minute.

Buchanan's measure would keep the commission as an independent entity. It was hustled through two Senate committees and onto the Senate floor Monday. It was the last day for the Legislature to block the reorganization, but Buchanan's bill is considered a revision. She says Brown has agreed to sign it.

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