Gas-Tax Hike Speeds Through Calif. Legislature

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – After being pushed and prodded by deal-making Gov. Jerry Brown, the California Legislature agreed late Thursday to pass a $52 billion transportation package, funded in part by a dramatic gas-tax increase – the first in 23 years.

The sweeping spending plan was the first legislative test of the Democrats’ two-thirds supermajority in both chambers, and the road deal passed with the minimum votes required. Ultimately, the bill passed in the Senate because of the lone Republican yes vote from state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres.

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, thanked Brown for helping to break “the multi-decade gridlock” on new transportation spending after he negotiated spending projects in certain districts in order to sway wary lawmakers.

“This bipartisan compromise includes strict accountability measures and closes our massive transportation funding shortfalls – without burdening future generations with debt,” De Leon said in a statement following the vote.

The 10-year-plan raises the state’s gas tax by 12 cents to 30 cents per gallon, while the tax on diesel fuel will spike 20 cents per gallon. It also includes a new $100 fee for zero-emission vehicles and a sliding-scale increase on vehicle registration based on the value of a vehicle.

Brown and Democratic leaders introduced the sweeping package just last week, calling it an essential fix for California’s crumbling highways and roads and setting a self-imposed passage deadline of April 6. The Democratic governor testified in support of the package at committee hearings and caucused with Democratic leaders throughout the week.

Critics, including Republicans and agricultural industry groups, bemoaned the sharp fuel tax increases and the speed with which lawmakers advanced the bill through the Legislature. Some environmental groups opposed a “poison pill” clause in Senate Bill 1 which they claim restricts regulators from adopting new emissions laws on older trucks.

“Once again, a special interest is asking communities near ports, railyards, warehouses and truck corridors to subsidize it through diminished health,” the Coalition for Clean Air said in an attempt to rally opposition to SB 1.

Republicans painted the plan as the “greatest tax hike in California history,” and said the bill includes no guarantee that the additional tax revenue will actually be spent on transportation projects.

State Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican who represents one of California’s poorest districts in Riverside County, said the presumed increases at the pump will force a portion of his elderly constituents to choose between buying gas or medication.

“This tax is aimed at the poor, the poor that don’t have lobbyists to come up here and try to sway your votes. They depend on you and me to look after their best interests,” Stone said on the Senate floor.

In the buildup to Thursday night’s chamber votes, Brown embarked on a promotional tour around California. But by Thursday morning, the bill still didn’t have enough Democratic votes to clear the required two-thirds threshold.

While most bills require a simple majority, SB 1 required two-thirds approval in both chambers because it includes a tax increase. The Senate voted 27-11 and the Assembly 54-26 in favor of the plan.

Brown and De Leon won over more guarded members by promising funding for major transportation projects in their districts.

They ironed out Senate Bill 132 Thursday afternoon, a budget bill which will provide $500 million for a commuter-rail extension and other road projects in Cannella’s Central Valley district in exchange for his crucial yes vote. Riverside County will also receive $427 million for freeway repairs and bridge widening.

In the end, the earmarks were enough to sway Cannella and a pair of Democrats from Riverside County.

“This state cannot continue to just put asphalt Band-Aids on potholes when what we really need is major road and rail surgery to keep Californians and their economy moving,” Cannella said in a statement. “In addition, this will be transformative for commerce and commuter travel throughout the Central Valley.”

Under the tax hike, most of the estimated $5.2 billion in 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.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, noted the environmental groups’ opposition to the bill but said the road repairs were simply long overdue.

“The reality is California’s population has tripled since Ronald Reagan was governor, and the demand on our roads is extraordinary,” Hertzberg said. “We need the roads; we need the infrastructure so there is a sense of urgency which compels this measure.”

 

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