Commentary: Bullet train finances need a vigorous test

Gov. Jerry Brown reappointed Elaine Howle as the state auditor last week.

It was a wise move. Howle has served in that vital, if little known, position longer than anyone with fierce independence and dogged determination to bore deeply into state and local government operations.

That was demonstrated last year when Howle uncovered a secret, multi-million-dollar stash of money in the University of California’s administration and revealed that top UC administrators had attempted to alter responses to Howle’s auditors.

There is, however, a flaw in the way Howle’s office functions. While the governor appoints the auditor, what she audits is determined by a two-house legislative committee whose decisions are often driven by the political motives of legislators who request audits.

A prime example is the audit that Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, requested last year into how sheriffs issue concealed weapons permits.

It was clearly aimed at Scott Jones, the Republican sheriff of Sacramento County, who has been much more willing than most urban sheriffs to issue such permits, albeit after rigorous training and background checks. And McCarty clearly was seeking ammunition, as it were, to support legislation to curb sheriffs’ weapons permits authority.

Howle’s audit didn’t bear the fruit McCarty sought. She found only some minor procedural shortcomings by Jones and other sheriffs and said, “we do not conclude state law needs to change to clarify the issuance criteria.”

That didn’t prevent McCarty from issuing an overblown press release charging that Jones “has maliciously neglected his sworn duty to follow the law when issuing CCW licenses.”

It also led to a squabble between Howle and Jones over whether he had illegally revealed some of the audit findings before her official release.

McCarty’s not alone in attempting to shape the work of Howle’s office, as a meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee this week, setting forth an initial 2018 agenda of work for the auditors, showed.

The centerpiece request was for an audit of the High-Speed Rail Authority’s contracting procedures, submitted by a bipartisan group of legislators.

The authority manages the state’s proposed bullet train system, a short initial section of which is being constructed in the San Joaquin Valley. Its costs have escalated sharply, underscoring doubt whether it will be possible for the state to finance the entire system, whose projected costs have nearly doubled since voters approved a $9.95 billion bond issue 10 years ago.

Several Republican members of the committee called for Howle to expand her audit to include the project’s overall financial viability, to no avail. Only the very limited version was approved.

In a few months, the authority, which just acquired a new executive director, will issue an updated “business plan” that’s supposed to spell out how a complete system will be financed.

It would have been prudent to authorize Howle to include an analysis of that plan in her audit, but Democratic legislators stubbornly resist delving deeply into whether the bullet train can become a reality – perhaps because it’s Brown’s pet project.

“I like trains,” he told legislators in his State of the State address this month. “I like high-speed trains even better.”

Liking trains, even bullet trains, is not enough, however. It’s high time that Brown, the bullet train board he appointed and other project advocates prove that there’s a practical way to build it. And it’s high time that what they propose gets a rigorous test by the state’s top forensic examiner, Elaine Howle.

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