California governor turns to housing, rail after climate win

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California Governor Jerry Brown attends the International Forum on Electric Vehicle Pilot Cities and Industrial Development in Beijing, China June 6, 2017. Photo by Thomas Peter/ Reuters

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown’s aggressive plea for lawmakers to renew California’s signature climate change law proved fruitful this week, bolstering his credibility as a world leader in the fight against global warming.

It also again showcased the Democrat’s political skill in Sacramento, where just months earlier he helped convince the largely Democratic Legislature to raise gas prices to pay for road and bridge projects through a tax hike.

Next up: Fulfilling a pledge to tackle California’s affordable housing crisis when lawmakers head back to the Capitol in August. After that, he will keep promoting an ambitious slate of climate policies in the state and beyond, and work at home to secure the future of lofty efforts to build a bullet train and re-engineer the state’s water system.

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Brown, 79, pursues projects that will exist long after he leaves the governor’s office but resists the word “legacy” at every opportunity. Longtime observers say his win on the cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions, and how he spends the last 17 months of his final term, will inevitably shape how he’s remembered. Brown previously served two terms as governor ending in the early 1980s.

“Without question, it’s a victory for him on several levels,” Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy communication at the University of Southern California, said of the deal on cap and trade, which puts a limit on carbon emissions and requires polluters to obtain permits to release greenhouse gases. “He denied that this was about his legacy, but it was.”

Beyond California, Brown is a special adviser for a U.N. climate conference in Germany this November. He’s also planning a global climate conference in San Francisco next year and leading an alliance among states, cities, businesses and others to help the United States meet the goals of the global Paris climate agreement after President Donald Trump pulled out.

“There is a lot of work to be done in California, but there’s a lot of persuasion and encouragement needed throughout the whole world,” Brown told The Associated Press in a Wednesday phone interview.

To help win a climate deal, the governor pledged to work with lawmakers on an affordable housing agreement before the year’s end. Rent prices in the state have risen faster than incomes, and roughly 1.5 million homes are lacking for low-income renters.

Fixing the crisis has proved a near intractable issue in the Capitol, with lawmakers rejecting a housing plan that Brown put forward last year.

The governor has long argued for streamlining regulations that can stifle construction before providing more money for building projects. But now he’s agreed to pursue long-term funding as part of a deal, a commitment that may have secured additional Democratic votes on cap and trade.

“There’s no magic wand for housing prices,” Brown said. “That is not an easily solved matter.”

As Brown’s tenure wraps up, two of his signature, but troubled, infrastructure projects are looming large: construction of a high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco and two giant tunnels to carry Northern California water to the south.

Brown has aggressively pushed for the bullet train since taking office for the second time in 2010 despite critics complaining about its high cost to taxpayers and whether it’s even necessary. Its price estimates have skyrocketed from $40 billion to $64 billion, and future funding is not certain.

A chunk of money for rail that comes in from cap and trade could be renegotiated in 2024 due to a constitutional amendment passed by lawmakers this week. If voters approve it, lawmakers will get a clean slate on determining how that money is spent.

Dan Richard, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Board, acknowledges the difficulties of getting lawmakers to spend money on a project that won’t provide immediate results. Construction is underway for a segment connecting San Jose to Bakersfield, scheduled to be operational in 2025.

“We’re talking about committing public dollars right now to something that does not have immediate benefits,” Richard said. But, he added, “in seven years I’m less concerned about being able to make the argument.”

Meanwhile, the $16 billion project to reroute California’s water from north to south through two giant tunnels is awaiting key federal and state approvals after winning early support in from federal wildlife officials.

The state also is battling with water agencies over who will pay for what parts of the project. But Brown expressed confidence the project will move forward — and that his successor will see its benefits.

“This project is teed up in a way that it never has been before, and it will proceed within the next 15 or 16 months,” he said. “So I think the next governor, whether they’d like to talk about it or not, I think there will be a strong inclination to stay the course.”

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