Kings County Residents Ask California Supreme Court to Overturn Approval of High-Speed Rail Bonds

A farmer, a landowner and Kings County asked the California Supreme Court today to overturn an appeals court ruling that would allow an $8.6 billion bond sale for the state’s future high-speed rail system.

The petition submitted to the high court in San Francisco claims the California High Speed Rail Authority’s decision last year to issue the bonds violated requirements of a 2008 ballot measure.

“What’s at stake is the voters’ trust in what a bond measure says,” attorney Stuart Flashman said at a news conference on the steps of the State Building in San Francisco today.

Flashman represents Hanford-area farmer John Tos, Hanford homeowner Aaron Fukuda and Kings County. Tos and Fukuda say the high-speed trains will run close to their property.

The not-yet-issued bonds were authorized by California voters in 2008 in Proposition 1A, which permitted up to $9.9 billion in bonds for the railroad system.

The system, the costliest infrastructure project in California history, is expected to cost a total of $67.5 billion for its 520-mile first phase between San Francisco and the Los Angeles Basin. That phase is slated to be completed by 2029. A second phase would extend to Sacramento and San Diego.

If issued, the bonds would contribute $2.6 billion of the $5.8 billion cost of a preliminary 130-mile segment of the system running from Merced to just north of Bakersfield. The remainder of that initial cost would come from federal funds.

The Kings County plaintiffs are challenging a ruling in which a state Court of Appeal panel in Sacramento upheld the bond plan on July 31.

They contend the rail authority’s action violates the 2008 proposition in two ways.

First, they allege, the measure required a funding plan for the full $31 billion cost of a 300-mile stretch known as the initial operating section, extending from Merced to the San Fernando Valley, and not just the smaller segment.

The second claim concerns a requirement that a bond finance committee made up of top state financial officials must find the actual issuing of bonds to be “necessary and desirable.”

The petition says the committee approved the sale in a brief meeting on the same day the rail authority asked for approval on March 18, 2013, and did not provide any statement or evidence of its reasoning.

Without such evidence, the petition argues, there is no way for courts to evaluate whether the committee fulfilled the requirement of determining that issuing the bonds is necessary and desirable.

The committee is made up of the state treasurer, controller, director of finance, secretary of business, transportation and housing, and chairperson of the High Speed Rail Authority. The group that approved the bond issuance was made up of representatives of the officials and not the executives themselves, Flashman said.

The appeals court decision “ignores very specific safeguards that were included in the state-wide ballot measure that was specifically presented to, and approved by, the voters to allow California high-speed rail to exist,” the attorney alleged.

In the July 31 ruling, a three-judge Court of Appeal panel said the finance committee was not required to explain its reasoning and that the full funding for the larger 300-mile section could be outlined in a later plan.

The panel acted in a lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by the rail authority itself last year to obtain validation of the bond issue in the face of expected legal challenges. The appeals court overturned a decision in which Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny said the bond issue was not valid.

Harold Johnson, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney representing the First Free Will Baptist Church in Bakersfield, said the church also plans to file a petition for review within a week.

The state high court, which grants review of only a small percentage of the petitions it receives, normally has 60 days to decide whether to hear a case, but can extend that time for 30 days.

If the Supreme Court denies review of the petitions, the appeals court ruling will become the final decision in the case.

Flashman said in that event, his Kings County clients will go back to Kenny’s court for a trial on part of a separate lawsuit they filed in 2011 that challenges other aspects of the rail plan.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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