SACRAMENTO (CN) — After years of neglect and special sessions, California’s Democratic leaders Wednesday promised to stop “kicking the can down the road” and unveiled a $5.2 billion annual transportation package fueled by increased gas taxes and new motorist fees.
The long-awaited road repair package calls for major increases to the state’s diesel and gasoline taxes, along with a new $100 fee for zero-emission vehicle owners.
State gas taxes will increase for the first time since 1994 by 12 cents per gallon, while diesel taxes will spike 20 cents per gallon.
Under the Democrats’ package, each car owner will also be assessed a new “transportation improvement fee” based on the value of the car. Cars worth less than $5,000 would be assigned a new $25 fee, while owners of cars valued at $5,000 to $24,999 would owe $50. The highest tier, $60,000 and above, would owe the state an additional $175.
The majority party hopes to rush the transportation plan through the Legislature by the end of next week.
Brown and Democratic Party leaders figure to have their hands full in gaining a two-thirds approval in both statehouses in such a short span. They will have to persuade nearly every Democratic member to vote for the package, including newly elected Democrats from more conservative swing districts.
Along with Brown, the plan is being pushed by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, and the Fix Our Roads Coalition.
Brown defended the new taxes and fees Wednesday to a crowd of transportation workers, lawmakers and lobbyists, calling the plan the “best we can figure out.” He said the extra money will allow the state to stop borrowing to fix its decrepit roads and avoid passing the bill to the next generation of Californians.
“This is like fixing the roof on your house: If you don’t fix the leak your furniture will be ruined, your rug will be destroyed, the wood will rot. That’s what it’s all about, so step up and take care of business,” Brown said from the steps of the Capitol, drawing applause from the special-interest crowd members.
Rendon was blunt about the shape of California’s neglected highways and adamant that the infrastructure could be fixed without borrowing.
“Let’s be clear, our roads suck,” Rendon said, adding that many Californians spend up to 92 hours in traffic per year.
Under the tax hike, most of the estimated $5.2 billion new annual revenue would be split between patching up local roads and highway repairs. It dedicates $30 billion to quick repairs such as potholes, $7.5 billion to local public transportation projects and $4 billion to bridge repairs.
Recent estimates by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office pegged California’s road maintenance repair needs at $12 billion. A rash of powerful winter storms further pounded California’s crummy roads and forced Brown to ask for federal emergency relief.
The proposal would invest $52 billion in transportation projects over the next decade.
With significantly fewer members in both houses, the Republican Party can’t derail the transportation package without a handful of Democrats. The minority party, which has introduced its own transportation plan that would not require new taxes, said it was left out of Brown’s transportation negotiations.
“Negotiated behind closed doors, this is the largest gas tax increase in the state’s history,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama. “The gas tax and car tax will certainly hurt ordinary people.”
The Republican proposal would create $5.6 billion for transportation primarily by redirecting state taxes on car sales, truck weight fees and revenue from auto insurance taxes. They say Californians have been robbed at the pump for decades because revenue generated from gas taxes has been funneled into the state’s general fund.
Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, said California’s leadership should be held accountable for spending gas taxes on non-transportation projects and wants new oversight and audits for major transportation projects.
“When Californians go to the gas station, we expect every penny of the gas tax that we pay to go to roads. That’s a clear principle that we should base any transportation funding package on,” Fong said of his proposed Assembly Bill 496 in an interview.
To increase transparency, Brown’s deal would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to prevent new transportation dollars from being spent on non-transportation projects. The deal would also task the state inspector general to make sure that entities receiving transportation money uses it efficiently and on transportation projects.
The fourth-term governor did not seem too concerned with Republicans’ presumed opposition to the $5.2 billion spending plan.
“The only objection is political, and I think that political objection is pretty weak,” Brown said.
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