Why Local Governments are Bond Backers Too

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
Traveling north from Sacramento along Highway 99 feels just like driving along any other busy, four-lane highway in California… That is until you get to the stoplight. The Director of Sacramento County’s Department of Transportation, Tom Zlotkowski says the plan is to modernize the 99-Elverta Road crossing—which has outgrown its country atmosphere. “The project would actually be to make it into a full overpass with access like an interchange on any interstate or state highway.”
The Governor’s proposal for transportation bonds includes more than five billion for highway improvements.   A list of regional projects suggested for funding includes carpool lanes for L-A and Orange Counties, a bypass in San Diego and road widening  in Northern California.  
But there are many more such projects, in similar need of funding, all over California.  Each one comes with its own argument— such as safety concerns or relieving traffic congestion.   But Zlotkowski says money is scarce and when a state bond proposal rolls around. And that’s when lobbying begins.  Local government officials come to Sacramento to make their pitch and the competition is stiff. “They all have needs that they bring to the table when projects are requested. Then we try to work through our local legislators at the Capitol to see if we can get them inserted into a plan.”
The Governor’s far-reaching plans to fund a variety of projects with state bond money—ranging from transportation to school construction has brought a variety of interest groups to the Capitol.  Some city Mayors have met in person with Governor Schwarzenegger and made visits to the floor of the state Assembly.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villairaigosa says he supports a bond plan for the good of the state, but makes no bones about the fact that his job is to get what he calls a fair share for Los Angeles. “We certainly have some specific items we want to advocate but right now we’re here in general agreement with the legislature that they’re on the right track.”
Amidst these appeals, state lawmakers are trying to avoid some perception problems.  Legislative leaders have said ‘no pork projects’… But one analyst points out pork is in the eye of the beholder. “You know the famous line, one man’s pork is another man’s critical infrastructure”
Doctor Steven Frates is a Senior Fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.  He says the practice of favoring some local governments has been around forever.  But it may not be welcome now.  That’s because in part, of the backlash over the recent federal highway transportation bill that many decried as overloaded with pet projects.  However Frates says a state bond proposal will have hurdles of its own to overcome. “There are going to be all kinds of people lining up to get some of the proceeds, there’s no question about that. I think the larger question is whether a bond issue of this size and scale will be palatable to the voters.”
The lobbying will continue while lawmakers hash out details of final bond proposals they hope to take to voters, starting this year. But Tom Zlotkowski says he’s feeling hopeful. After all, at least one of his projects—that 99-Elverta Road crossing was on the Governor’s list of proposals for regional funding—but the fight will continue to make sure it stays.