A Democratic plan to raise fuel taxes and other vehicle fees to the tune of about $52 billion over the next 10 years was confronted Thursday by a political Maginot Line in the central San Joaquin Valley, where Republicans dominate the region’s legislative delegation.
What was unclear prior to the afternoon vote, however, was whether their opposition would be any more effective in defeating the bill than the French fortifications were in defending against a German invasion in World War II. The vote in the Senate was not expected to happen until after 2:30 p.m. Thursday, with the Assembly to consider it afterward.
Senate Bill 1, backed by Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders in the Legislature, garnered harsh criticism from Valley Republicans in both the state Senate and Assembly. On Thursday morning, Sen. Anthony Canella, R-Ceres, appeared to be the only local Republican wavering on the bill as his staff said he was still in discussions and undecided. Canella’s 12th Senate District includes parts of western Madera and Fresno counties.
But Republican Sens. Andy Vidak of Hanford and Jean Fuller of Bakersfield were solidly opposed to the bill. “California is already spending $419,000 per mile of road construction as opposed to Texas at $177,000, and California has wasted $3.5 billion on less than one mile of high-speed-rail track,” Vidak said Thursday. “Jacking up gas taxes and registration fees will just harm the working poor, unemployed and struggling middle-class families in the Central Valley and frankly it’s just throwing good money after bad.”
In a newsletter to constituents this week, Vidak castigated the Democratic leadership – Brown, Senate Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. “They did not negotiate with the Republican legislators at all on this plan, but now they have presented it as a ‘take it or leave it’ demand,” he wrote.
A fourth Republican senator for the region, Tom Berryhill of Twain Harte – whose sprawling district in the Sierra Nevada includes parts of eastern Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties – had an excused absence from the Senate on Thursday and was unavailable to vote on the bill.
In the Assembly, the Valley’s three Republicans – Frank Bigelow of O’Neals, Jim Patterson of Fresno and Devon Mathis of Visalia – had already declared their opposition to the bill in the days leading up to the vote, and those positions did not wobble on Thursday. Bigelow and Patterson are assistant leaders of the Assembly’s Republican Caucus.
Bigelow said Thursday afternoon that he knows firsthand the poor condition of the state’s highways. “I drive up and down this state every week, continuously falling victim to our decades old, crumbling transportation system,” he said. “Despite the tremendous need to provide a solution for our state’s current infrastructure crisis, we cannot ask taxpayers to fund a $52 billion tax over the next 10 years. Sacramento has been diverting current transportation taxes and fees to fund unrelated programs for years. I cannot, and will not, support a measure that needlessly digs deeper into the pockets of Californians.”
“Today is the day that the Senate and Assembly will vote on a $5 billion tax increase that won’t build any new roads,” Patterson said Thursday on his Facebook page. “I stand with the California families whose tax dollars have been wasted for decades. Governor Brown, you have all the money you need to fix the roads. Do it.”
In video remarks on his Facebook page, Mathis was similarly dismissive. “These guys (Democrats) are out there joking and laughing about increasing your taxes,” he said. Instead, he advocated a competing Republican bill, Assembly Bill 496. “We have money out there already that you’re being charged for that Gov. Brown is taking and putting into the General Fund,” Mathis said in his message to constituents.
It was uncertain on Thursday morning whether the Valley’s two Democratic Assembly members, Joaquin Arambula of Fresno and Rudy Salas of Bakersfield, would fall in line with their party’s leadership. Arambula’s staff did not return a message seeking his position on the bill. Salas was reportedly still undecided and listening in the hours before the vote to concerns being raised in his district, which includes Kings County and part of Kern County.
This story will be updated.