Last week the state's Joint Legislative Audit Committee held a hearing on a request by Assemblymen Frank Bigelow, R-Madera, and Jim Patterson, R-Fresno. The request asked for an audit of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's process for acquiring privately owned land in the Central Valley.
While serving as a member of the Budget Sub-Committee, I worked hard to make certain a good business plan was in place -- one that would include private investment and contain costs as proposed on the ballot. I also stressed the importance of a reasonable route siting with willing partners. For this reason, I supported this audit and further transparency in the Authority's procedures. I've heard from many residents who are very concerned about the land acquisition process.
Unfortunately, Democrats opposed and Republicans supported the request, and the idea was shelved.
Some background. In January, the California State Public Works Board authorized the Authority to begin acquiring parcels of prime farmland. The acquisition of right-of-way is an essential step before the Authority initiates the largest state public works project in the nation's history. However, without adequate oversight, taxpayers could overpay for the land, landowners could be underpaid, or the state could take more land than necessary.
This would unnecessarily displace farmers from the state's most valuable and fertile agricultural land, inflicting permanent damage to California's economic competitiveness.
The Authority states that the right-of-way process is subject to various requirements, including the Property Acquisition Law and the California Eminent Domain law. Additionally, Proposition 1A provides the State Auditor with the designation to conduct "periodic audits of the Authority's use of bonds proceeds ..." To date, no audits have taken place.
In Fresno, Kay Lim and Ken Chea, owners of Angelo's Drive-In, a 1950s-era restaurant they purchased nine years ago for $300,000, is in the rail's direct path. The Authority has offered them $160,000. And while they have been told that they are good candidates to appeal, the owners don't want to fight the state and can't afford a lawyer to do so. They are tired of the process and just want it to end.
The committee was more concerned with construction delays on the project than ensuring citizens are treated fairly. It was a simple request to ensure transparency, and accountability and to ensure that citizens are afforded due process and informed of their rights. But when it comes to High-Speed Rail, apparently that's too much to ask.
State Sen. Jean Fuller of Bakersfield represents the 18th District.