The Association Steers the Budget Conversation to Success

The fiscal cliff threatened California’s transit agencies. Association membership led the way to secure crucial transit funds against the backdrop of a state budget shortfall.
By Arianna Smith
Managing Editor

Transit California

At the beginning of 2023, transit agencies across California faced a fiscal cliff due to the dual crises of the federal pandemic emergency funds running out and the persistent lag in ridership returning to pre-pandemic levels.  Agencies were contemplating the terrible possibilities of laying off staff, canceling routes and services, and delaying critically needed capital maintenance and upgrades – all of which could have caused a downward trend in ridership and farebox revenues and could have led to an ever-worsening spiral of additional operations cuts.

Seven months later, the Legislature passed and Governor Newsom signed into law the 2023-24 state budget with over $5 billion in funds to preserve transit agencies’ futures, which was secured through the hard work of the Association and its partners inside and outside the State Capitol.  The signed budget includes $4 billion total in General Fund support for the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP) for the next two fiscal years, as well as $1.1 billion in funds for the newly created Zero Emission Transit Capital Program. All of the funding comes with new flexibility for regions to direct up to 100% of this funding to meet the operational needs of agencies in their jurisdiction.  With these funds, transit agencies will be able to continue to serve their riders and communities in the near-term.

During negotiations, legislators and the Governor signaled that any transit funding would be attached to accountability measures, which came with the possibility of deeply burdensome requirements for agencies.  In response, the Association submitted and advocated for an accountability framework designed to address policymakers’ concerns about ridership and the long-term sustainability of transit agencies, protect the Association’s membership from cumbersome requirements, and ensure communities could continue to rely on their transit agencies for needed services (for a deep dive into these new accountability requirements, see Transit California’s upcoming August 2023 feature story). 

How did the Association achieve this success on securing funding?  It started over a year ago, long before the Governor released his proposed budget in January 2023.

In July 2022, Association leadership undertook the development of the California Transit Association’s 2023-2028 Strategic Plan, where participants noted the major concerns that eventually helped focus the 2023-24 budget negotiations over transit funding. Finalized by the Executive Committee in November 2022, the Plan identified the pursuit and capture of transit operations funding as the Association’s top legislative priority in 2023, articulating an advocacy objective to “secure new transit operations funding to address the pandemic-induced looming fiscal cliff and support transit’s recovery from the pandemic,” as well as to “protect existing transit operations and capital funds [and to] secure new sources of funding for transit operations and capital projects.”
“Before the newly elected officials were even sworn into office, and long before the Governor released his January budget proposal, the Association had identified our needs and had articulated our priorities for the following legislative session,” said Michael Pimentel, Executive Director of the Association.“With a goal in place to preserve the transit funding secured in the previous year’s budget and secure new funding for transit operations, we were ready to develop advocacy strategies inside the Capitol and communications strategies throughout the state. In doing so, we ensured that the public – and their representatives and staff – understood the stakes of addressing the looming transit funding crisis far in advance of budget hearings and negotiations. We made sure that we started from a strongly supported position.”
After the adoption of the Strategic Plan, the Association’s Executive Committee led the process for determining a politically viable consensus funding solution to propose to the legislature. First, the Committee established a new Transit Operations Funding Subcommittee, with a diverse membership from a wide range of geographic regions, transit modes, and agency sizes. The Subcommittee conducted an Association-wide survey to collect information about the size, scope, and timing of Association members’ transit operations funding needs; members’ current and future ridership regrowth strategies; and the impact of the statutory relief the Association secured for transit agencies in 2020 and 2021.  
The Strategic Plan proved to be prescient: The Governor’s initial budget proposal, released in January 2023, predicted a $22.5 billion shortfall due to lower revenue collection. It proposed cuts of $2 billion to transit agencies, which would have dramatically worsened the already tenuous state of transit operations around the state.
During this phase of developing public issue awareness, the Association’s communications team secured scores of positively framed media placements around the state and at key outlets that are regularly consulted by statewide policymakers. “We cannot afford to go backward at a time when state leaders and everyday Californians recognize the urgent need to move forward in reinventing our transportation network. We also cannot jeopardize our investment in the future by letting transit agencies run out of lifeblood operations funding. We need additional state support for public transit agencies,” Pimentel wrote in a February 2023 Capitol Weekly op-ed that was read and shared widely.
A social media campaign organized by the Association helped individual members and partnering organizations to spread the message that transit agencies needed state investments in the 2023-24 budget.  Association members answered the call to engage with their online followers to build public support for transit funding relief across the state.  Social media also helped sustain legislative relationships by highlighting transit champions who showed early leadership in securing transit funds. To keep the issue highly visible at the height of May and June negotiations, the Association also conducted a small but effective digital advertising campaign that was microtargeted to legislators, Governor’s Administration officials, and staff viewing content on policy specialty media outlets and social media.
As the Association membership came to a consensus about specific short- and longer-term funding needs, Association leadership took aggressive advocacy actions to ensure that the Legislature and Governor’s Administration would include and approve the necessary funding in the state budget. The advocacy team met weekly with Budget Committee staff and legislators, filed budget letters to provide ample evidence for funding needs, and testified at legislative hearings. The team provided critical expertise and guidance for a Joint Committees on Transportation Informational Hearing about the fiscal cliff, and Pimentel provided extended, compelling testimony on a key panel at the hearing. The team also engaged frequently with the Governor’s Administration, including with California State Transportation (CalSTA) Agency Secretary Toks Omishakin and Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Transportation James Hacker.
At every step, the advocacy team’s efforts were bolstered constantly by the Association membership’s presence, mobilization, and expertise. Association members responded enthusiastically to action alerts that urged in-person and call-in testimony at budget hearings where transit funding was being considered. Following the Spring Conference, dozens of Association members descended on the State Capitol to directly lobby the legislators who represented their agencies’ service areas and riders. Members stood together at multiple press conferences organized by our legislative champion Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), adhered to consistent messaging when interviewed and quoted by journalists, and spread the word on their individual social media accounts.
The Association also brought together dozens of coalition partners to support its budget request, including local governments, environmental organizations, community transit advocates, business groups, and labor unions. At many legislative budget hearings, the unified voices of transit agencies and coalition partners – organized and activated by the Association and our regional partners – were amongst the best represented.
The Association advocacy team leveraged its years of collaboration and relationship building with experienced legislators in leadership positions. Senator Scott Wiener served as an indispensable expert insider and voice for public transit  throughout budget negotiations. The Budget Committee Chairs, Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), as well as Transportation Committee Chairs, Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) and Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Burbank) each praised the final budget agreement’s public transit provisions as negotiated by the Association and its coalition partners (for statements from these legislators, see June 2023’s Transit California).
After the budget agreement was signed into law, CalSTA Secretary Toks Omishakin said, “I applaud Governor Newsom and legislative leaders on enacting a budget that, despite a challenging deficit, maintains critical transportation investments and includes $5.1 billion for public transit to help stave off a looming fiscal cliff. Public transportation is absolutely essential to achieving our state’s world-leading climate and equity goals, and this funding provides a vital lifeline that will give transit agencies flexibility to invest in capital projects or operations based on their needs. . . . I look forward to partnering with stakeholders on implementing these key steps that will help work toward longterm financial stability and delivering a world-class transit system for the people of California. . . . By maintaining key state transportation investments and streamlining project delivery, California continues to be in a great position to compete for significant federal infrastructure dollars and quickly deliver projects that align with our ‘Core Four’ priorities of safety, climate action, equity and economic prosperity.” 
Ultimately, the Association and its membership were central to securing funding in the face of an initially skeptical Legislature and Governor’s Administration. This remarkable success was the result of an organized Executive Committee, an experienced advocacy team, and a strong membership that united to benefit the whole Association.  
But the work has just begun:  While the 2023-24 budget provides short term stop gap solutions to the fiscal cliff, the 2024-25 budget conversations will center on longer term funding solutions. The Association will continue to prepare, work hard, and foster connections to steer the budget conversation.

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