San Diego Union Tribune: For California gas tax hike, Brown must answer one question

The following is an editorial written by the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board on March 30. To view the original post click here. 

Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders have proposed a 10-year, $52 billion program to fix state roads and, to a lesser extent, upgrade transit systems. They want to pay for it by increasing gasoline excise taxes by 12 cents a gallon, raising registration fees on a sliding scale and imposing a $100 annual fee on emission-free vehicles whose owners now bear less burden for road upkeep. The diesel excise tax would also rise from 16 cents to 36 cents per gallon and the diesel sales tax from 5.75 percent to 9.75 percent. All of this would require a two-thirds vote of both the Assembly and Senate.

In a telephone interview Thursday with two San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board members, the governor and state Transportation Secretary Brian P. Kelly had an easy time articulating the need for road improvements. National studies have long shown California’s roads are among the worst in maintenance and, in rural areas, in road quality. As Brown said, providing decent roads is government’s “most core function.” Their case appears strong, especially if Kelly can assuage Republicans’ concerns about waste and inefficiency in Caltrans by showing what he told us: that its support staff has been reduced every year under Brown to a 23-year low. Most importantly, Brown has included a constitutional amendment in the proposal to ensure new revenue would go only to transportation projects.

But Brown’s argument collapses if he and Kelly can’t document the restriction is as strong as legally possible and new dollars couldn’t be diverted to ease pressure on the general fund during one of the state’s periodic revenue recessions. In Thursday’s interview, the governor deferred to Kelly when asked about taxpayer protections, and Kelly wasn’t as unequivocal as taxpayers should hope.

The fact is past state leaders have shown they — and constitutional guarantees — can’t be trusted on this issue. In 2002, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 42, a constitutional amendment meant to ensure that motor vehicle sales taxes be used only for transportation purposes. The requirement could only be suspended on a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. After such suspensions happened twice, in 2006, voters by an even bigger margin approved Proposition 1A, a constitutional amendment modifying Proposition 42. It strengthened protections against diverting motor vehicle sales taxes for general-purpose spending and added the requirement that if these revenues were diverted during a period of state financial hardship, this would be treated as a loan that eventually had to be repaid to the transportation fund.

Public sentiment was obvious — and soon after ignored. In 2010, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature sharply reduced the sales tax on gasoline — the revenue covered by Propositions 42 and 1A — while sharply increasing the excise tax charged per gallon. Having the changes end up being revenue-neutral made it be easier to enact legally. Since there are weaker protections for what gas excise taxes can be used, this allowed about $1.8 billion in these taxes to be diverted to repaying transportation-related bonds instead of using the general fund to do so.

Kelly said new gas-tax revenue couldn’t be diverted to repaying previous bonds. But until the fine print of the governor’s proposal has been thoroughly vetted for loopholes allowing new creative diversions, it is impossible to embrace.

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