LA Times Capitol Journal: Gov. Brown’s proposal to fix California’s roads isn’t perfect, but lawmakers should give the plan a shot

The following is an column written by the Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton on April 3. To view the original post click here. 

A road repair kit would make a nice birthday present for Gov. Jerry Brown. And that’s what he’s asking for from the state Legislature.

But never mind Brown. This would be a gift we all could enjoy, even with the attached tax increases.

The governor has set Thursday as the deadline for passage of a long-stalled road repair package. That’s the day before his 79th birthday. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but it’s doubtful.

Being presented a major infrastructure bill and finally blowing out the candles on this nagging transportation issue would seem a comfy birthday fit for the political veteran.

There’s nothing mandatory about the deadline. If it comes and goes, and the Legislature is still flailing, that’s life in Sacramento.

But time is running out for the four-term governor, who will be forced from office by term limits after next year.

“I’ll be going to my ranch in two years,” Brown told reporters last week, referring to his ancestral spread in the rolling hills of Colusa County. “You want to have a screwed up state with a bunch of potholes, go ahead. But that’s insane.”

I worry for my car. There’s a northbound stretch of Interstate 5 in Sacramento, five minutes from the Capitol, which feels every morning like a Sierra stream bed. Bang and bounce. Each legislator should be required to travel this potholed route daily. It might jar some sense into them about the need to pay for repairs.

The Legislature hasn’t voted for a gas tax increase since 1989, when Republican Gov. George Deukmejian pushed hard for one. But the tax wasn’t adjusted for inflation.

Since then, the tax has lost half its purchasing power. Moreover, motorists are buying fewer gallons today because vehicles are more fuel efficient. And the state has a $130-billion backlog of needed repairs.

Brown and legislative leaders, after two years in idle, finally punched the accelerator last week and proposed a specific repair plan.

The basics: $5.2 billion raised annually for 10 years. Of that, 65% would be spent on fixing state and local roads, bridges and culverts. Transit would get 20%. Plus, there’d be money to improve “trade corridors” — routes around ports — and some for bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

The revenue: Gas taxes would rise by 12 cents per gallon to 30 cents, and diesel by 20 cents to 36. The sales tax on diesel also would be hiked by 4 percentage points to 9.75%.

That’s not all. There’d be a new annual fee on vehicles, based on their worth. A car worth less than $5,000 would pay $25. Then there’d be a sliding scale up to $175 for a car worth more than $60,000.

Electric cars would be assessed a $100 annual fee because they escape gas taxes.

It all would average $13 per month, or so the state says.

A 2018 ballot measure would amend the state Constitution to prohibit any of the new money from being spent on anything but transportation.

“It’s pay now or pay more later,” says Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) is trying to ramrod the bill through the Legislature before it goes on spring break Thursday. Roads will only crumble into worse shape until they’re fixed, De León points out.

This probably is the Legislature’s most important bill of the year — and certainly one of the toughest to pass. That’s because any tax increase — thanks to Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax cutter — requires a two-thirds legislative vote. Back in the day when the Legislature got more done and could adjust taxes to fit the economy, only a simple majority was required.

Democrats do hold a supermajority now, but some “mods” are frightened by the tax bogeyman. And modern Republicans seem genetically incapable of voting to raise taxes. That eviscerates any bargaining power they might have.

“If Republicans voted for it, they could ask for things,” says Allan Zaremberg, a longtime political player who heads the California Chamber of Commerce, a strong supporter of the bill. “If you don’t vote for it, you don’t get things.

“Everybody knows it’s a tough vote. But what alternative is there? The roads are in terrible condition. I almost fell into a pothole today on Highway 101.”

Assembly Republicans have proposed their own no-tax plan. It would use current money that’s being spent on other things. For example, it would take the $3 billion generated by sales taxes on vehicle purchases and shift it from the general fund into transportation programs.

“If the argument is that the only solution is to increase regressive taxes that hurt lower- and middle-income families the most, we should reevaluate our priorities,” says freshman Assemblyman Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield), vice chairman of the Transportation Committee.

De León’s response: “That mindset is irresponsible. When you say you want to ‘reprioritize,’ it’s code for taking money away from schools, from senior citizens who have dementia…. It’s code for not wanting to say what you’d cut.”

This measure isn’t perfect, but it deserves passage. Our cars need help. And it’s a pay-as-you-go plan. No borrowing. No bonds that double the sticker price with interest payments.

But some shortsighted legislators will still act like fools who curse the darkness and refuse to flip on the light because it might run up the electric bill.

Brown’s birthday present may be a little late.

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