New law allows Tracy, Calif., to buy land for solar project

Capping a rare show of congressional bipartisanship, and several years of work, President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed into law a bill that frees up 150 acres for purchase by the city of Tracy in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The Schulte Road property is slated to be developed as a solar energy farm.

“It will help the city of Tracy a lot,” Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, Calif., said in an interview after the bill signing. “They have been wanting to use this land.”

McNerney, who is relocating his official residency to San Joaquin County following congressional redistricting, cast the bill as an employment-boosting measure. Some 200 jobs will be associated with developing the proposed solar energy facility, Tracy Mayor Brent Ives says. The bill is also an object lesson in what works and what doesn’t in the 112th Congress.

After all, the Tracy land sale legislation is one of only 40 bills that have passed both House and Senate this year and been signed into law by Obama. Seventeen of these bills renamed post offices, border stations or other federal facilities. Many larger, more complicated bills, meanwhile, have fallen by the wayside or stalled in the mud. (Among that few that have passed both houses is a bill to reauthorize the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which awaits Obama’s signature.)

What seems to work, for the most part: a cost-free, narrowly tailored bill that cannot be tagged as either an earmark or a tax and which can attract well-placed supporters from across the party aisle and across the Capitol.

“It’s not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democrat issue; it’s an American jobs issue,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, Calif., declared in a statement.

Denham’s current congressional district includes parts of San Joaquin County. He is also chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the General Services Administration, which manages federal properties, so his support proved crucial in convincing House Republican leaders to let the bill come up for a vote.

McNerney’s bill is a modest one. Spanning little more than a page, it authorizes the federal government to sell Tracy the Schulte Road land at fair market value and free of any use restrictions. In previous years, McNerney said, the potential price tag was pegged at $950,000 or so, but an updated assessment will be needed.

“It’s not going to cost the government a cent,” McNerney said, “and in fact, it’s going to make the government a little money.”

The most important part of the bill, though, lifts previous use conditions that blocked Tracy from the solar energy venture.

In 1998, urged on by then-Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, Congress passed legislation that allowed the sale of 200 acres from the federal Bureau of Prisons to the city. The legislation stipulated that 150 acres could be used for educational purposes and the other 50 acres could be used for economic development.

“I think that what we have put together is a plan that’s a win-win for everyone,” Pombo said at the time.

The school plans then shifted to plans for playing fields, which in turn fell apart by 2007 when officials became concerned about the presence of underground natural gas pipelines. By lifting the legislative restrictions altogether, city officials now have the freedom to try the solar energy project.

McNerney said the bill was able to gain some momentum when Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California succeeded in getting a version passed through the Senate by voice vote last August. Even so, with the GOP-controlled House having what McNerney termed a “limited opening” for action that isn’t part of the leadership’s agenda, it took nine months for the measure to reach the House floor.

Obama signed the bill without any ceremony or congressional spectators. It was one of 13 bills signed Wednesday; 11 of them renamed a post office and one renamed a border station.

Related stories from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer