By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday he would scale back massive water and rail projects pushed by his predecessor and had assembled a team of lawyers to protect wildfire victims and ratepayers as utility PG&E enters bankruptcy proceedings.
In his first State of the State address since taking office, Newsom also took several swipes at U.S. President Donald Trump, calling the Republican’s immigration policies “political theater” based on misrepresentations.
“This is our answer to the White House: No more division, no more xenophobia and no more nativism,” Newsom said in a wide-ranging speech.
Newsom distanced himself from fellow Democrat and four-term governor Jerry Brown in partially unwinding two of his popular predecessor’s signature projects: bypassing the fragile California Delta with a set of tunnels to divert water from upstream and building a $77 billion high-speed rail line.
While sticking mostly to a progressive agenda, Newsom acknowledged issues of importance to Republicans as well as Democrats. Key among those was his decision to scale back high-speed rail, which Republicans in the state have derided as an expensive boondoggle.
The rail project, which was intended to connect the northern and southern parts of the state, will now connect Bakersfield and Merced in the San Joaquin Valley breadbasket, filling a glaring gap in the state system and keeping Newsom’s campaign promise to help that often overlooked part of California.
Brown’s plan to channel water for towns, cities and farms through two large tunnels under a fragile delta that is home to endangered fish species was opposed by environmentalists. Newsom said he supported one tunnel.
Newsom’s interest in improving healthcare in rural areas and helping victims of wildfire were a welcome sign to Republican Assembly Member James Gallagher that the new governor might be willing to work with the state’s minority GOP members.
“He really does seem to want to do something for rural parts of California – and most of those areas are represented by Republicans, so he will have to talk to us,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher’s Northern California district includes the town of Paradise, destroyed by a wildfire late last year that killed 85 people.
Newsom said he had convened a strike force of lawyers to help the state advocate for fire victims and consumers as the giant utility PG&E Corp goes through bankruptcy proceedings.
The utility filed for protection last month, citing in part anticipated liabilities from wildfires that its equipment may have sparked.
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