Policy Today magazine cover
February 1, 2006 - California Ed.

PT talks to California Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, chair of the Assembly Committee on Transportation, about bricks and mortar, traffic congestion and reasons for optimism in Sacramento

PT: Sacramento seems to have infrastructure fever these days. What do you make of it all?

Oropeza: I'm pleased that the governor has acknowledged the need for us to invest in our bricks-and-mortar infrastructure in the state, because we've allowed it to erode and there's a great deal of unmet need.

PT: Across the aisle in Sacramento, what would most people agree to be the most pressing infrastructure projects in California right now?

Oropeza: I think that there is a lot of bipartisan agreement that congestion is at the breaking point. We've got to come up with solutions to the overwhelming traffic throughout our state. It used to be that people only complained about Los Angeles. Well, it's not just a Los Angeles phenomenon anymore. Every part of our state faces overwhelming congestion, whether you're in Sacramento or Fresno or San Diego, you face terrible commutes, families are impacted, our public health is compromised due to pollution and it takes a real human toll in terms of stress. Something's got to give.

I think that overall congestion and our need for new schools are really the areas of greatest bipartisan consensus on what this infrastructure project should focus on.

PT: The numbers being tossed around are mind boggling: $222 billion for roads, schools, bridges and dozens of other projects. What can be done to keep this project from becoming a grab-bag for groups looking to cash in?

Oropeza: As you know, this is money that will be proposed in elections over a series of years. Not all of that money will be put on ballots at the same time. We'll be asking voters this year, in 2008 and in 2012, so they will have the opportunity—at least three times—to say 'yes' or 'no' to what we're trying to do at each point.

There's no free lunch; we have to do this. There are major unmet needs in this state, and we have a duty to place those needs before the citizenry and let them make the choice. I think this is a prudent way to do it, because interest rates are low and it's a good time to borrow money.

PT: Will voters have a tangible idea of the projects they're voting to fund with each bond, or will it be somewhat obscure?

Oropeza: Each measure must be single-subject, so you'll see a bond on transportation and related air quality programs because they're tied together. There will be one on education, one on jails and prisons, etc. But within that, I think that providing some flexibility for local determination is a good idea. I'd like to avoid a top-down decision making process on transportation projects, for instance. I think local areas know better than the state does about what their local needs are.

PT: On that note, how are you able to build a coherent overall strategy for the state out of all of these competing local interests?

Oropeza: It's very difficult. Of course, the governor's proposal, which is the bill that I'm carrying for him, is only for $6 billion in the first round. Well, there's a great deal more than $6 billion worth of need, so how do you prioritize that? We need to look for the projects that will give us the most relief in terms of the greatest impact for the dollars. We need to look at two major factors: congestion relief and improvements in air quality. The two go hand-in-hand, and there are projects that will serve both.

There's no denying the difficulty of coming up with a cohesive, broader strategy. We have to make sure there's equity and fairness geographically, and balance the spending throughout the state.

PT: Three months ago all we heard about was how broken the current political system was and how much reform was needed. Since we haven't had any systemic reform, are government officials now looking past those structural deficiencies that have produced legislative paralysis in the past? Isn't a big spending project like this asking for trouble?

Oropeza: It's definitely something to focus on, but I think the special election was a wake up call. It demonstrated the public's view that they were tired of the politics that had infiltrated policymaking in the capitol. It's their view that politics should take place outside the capitol, and policy inside it. They've made the point, and I think most people here in Sacramento heard it loud and clear.

Moreover, it's usually easier to get your hands around something solid—bricks-and-mortar projects—that you can touch and understand easily. Although this will be difficult because ideological underpinnings will influence where the money is eventually spent, it's still something tangible. Those types of projects are usually easier to deal with than the less-tangible, but equally important human capital issues. Reform issues don't go away because we're focusing on this right now.

PT: Do you foresee any movement this year on reform then? Term limits or redistricting maybe?

Oropeza: I don't know about term limits. Leadership is always interested in pursuing it, but I don't spend too much time thinking about it myself. I do think we'll see redistricting reform. Our current method is too politicized, too top-down, and doesn't respond to communities of interest.

PT: How will anything get done during an election year? This all sounds very ambitious.

Oropeza: A lot of people need to accomplish something to prove themselves going into the elections. I have a sense of relief about it, personally. I come from local government where you work across the aisle all the time. The more  we can do that in Sacramento, the happier I will be. I'm an eternal optimist, and I refuse to see the glass half empty.

PT: Assemblywoman, thank you for your time.

Jenny Oropeza represents Carson and the 55th Assembly District. Oropeza graduated from California State University, Long Beach, and holds a degree in business administration.