Calif. officials press their lawmakers for federal support

McClatchy Washington BureauSeptember 11, 2013 

— San Joaquin Valley officials are struggling this week to enlist the attention of lawmakers consumed with Syria and other Capitol Hill concerns.

The officials from eight valley counties want serious road and rail dollars. They seek help cleaning up smog. They have, for the moment, put aside rivalries in hopes of selling a unified agenda to a distracted and debt-ridden Congress.

“It’s helpful because we come as the San Joaquin Valley as a whole, so it gives us more political clout than if we were just lobbying for our individual counties,” Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida said Wednesday.

Ishida is one of more than two dozen local council members, mayors, supervisors and staffers participating in this year’s San Joaquin Valley Regional Policy Council lobbying push. Dubbed “Valley Voice,” the annual event rallies officials around projects and pitches considered useful to the fast-growing region’s 3.9 million residents.

They set meetings Wednesday and Thursday to promote a high priority list that includes widening State Route 99, improving east-west connections between Route 99 and Interstate 5 and upgrading rail lines for both commuters and freight. The specific project areas range from Stockton to Bakersfield, encompassing seven different congressional districts.

“We’re all trying to work together,” Waterford Mayor Charlie Goeken said.

An ambitious and controversial high-speed rail project, though, was left off the unified agenda. The project, whose initial route is supposed to connect Bakersfield and Merced, divides representatives both in the House and at home. The valley’s House Republicans have repeatedly tried to cut federal funding for the project, while valley Democrats have been big supporters of the high-speed rail plan.

“If we have issues here we can’t agree on, we don’t bring them forward,” Madera Mayor Robert Poythress said.

The unified lobbying campaign is a popular approach for individual valley counties, which often employ the “One Voice” moniker for their individual trips. The trips follow a common format, epitomized Wednesday by the officials walking back and forth across Capitol Hill to speak with Senate and House staffers, who are, Ishida noted, the people “that get things done.” House members scheduled separate meetings with the delegation. Freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., arranged to meet valley officials for dinner Wednesday at Tortilla Coast, a nearby Capitol Hill restaurant.

The regional show of force can help make a case, officials say, though Goeken noted that there’s also danger of “preaching to the choir.” The only lawmakers with whom the officials scheduled meetings were those from the valley, who, with the exception of high-speed rail, largely share a common transportation perspective.

But in the current political climate, even the most stalwart congressional allies must struggle to help out.

The House Appropriations Committee on which Valadao sits, for instance, has sworn off earmarks, making it harder to secure federal dollars for hometown projects. Overall funding is tighter than ever, too, in part, because of the automatic cuts imposed by what lawmakers call the sequester.

The Department of Transportation had to cut spending by about $1 billion this year under the sequester, with the biggest chunk coming from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“There’s not a lot of new dollars going around,” Poythress said. “We’re going to have to work with what’s there.”

Last month, facing probable defeat, House Republican leaders pulled from the floor a fiscal 2014 transportation and housing funding bill, while a related $54 billion bill stalled in the Senate.

Further aggravating the challenges, the federal government will shut down Oct. 1, unless Congress passes another temporary spending measure known as a continuing resolution. Some House and Senate conservatives are insisting their price for keeping federal dollars flowing is to defund the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. Though the votes don’t exist to pass such a measure over President Barack Obama’s certain veto, the debate could distract lawmakers from conducting their usual business.

Some of the valley’s transportation priorities could be boosted by the next federal highway bill, set for renewal next year. Congress passed the current highway bill over the opposition of several dozen conservative lawmakers, including Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who was scheduled to meet with the valley officials this week about their latest transportation wish list.

“We try to concentrate on transportation,” Ishida said of the annual lobbying trip. “We don’t talk about things like water or immigration, because then we start to get into conflicts.”

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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