Senator blasts plan to cut millions from Valley highways. Newsom denies critics’ claims

State Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, who represents a large swath of the central San Joaquin Valley, said he’s baffled by new state-level plans that could take money from highway projects that voters support.

Highway 99 stands to lose out on $17 million to widen lanes in Madera and Tulare counties following an executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month that directed some money collected through gas taxes from road repairs, in favor of rail projects.

The state also might not provide $15.5 million that had been expected to widen Highway 46 in San Luis Obispo County.

Meanwhile, earlier this week Newsom denied the claims being raised by critics, saying the gas tax funds are “locked in” and will be used for their intended purposes.

Those gas tax dollars were made possible by Senate Bill 1 in 2017, and voters rejected its repeal last year.

Under Newsom’s executive order, Caltrans must “reduce congestion through innovative strategies designed to encourage people to shift from cars to other modes of transportation.”

“I don’t understand how this is even legal, from a voter integrity standpoint,” Borgeas said Friday during the “Eggs & Issues” forum at Tornino’s in Fresno. “The idea that individuals can take money from that pot (when) the voters prescribed exactly where it was intended to go, from a legal standpoint, I don’t understand.”

He said the situation boils down to the vague legislation language and the judicial system’s reluctance to weigh in on political questions. “If you put something on the ballot, you must be bound by the parameters of the language that the electorate reasoned in their vote. That’s just not the case in California. It just baffles me,” he said.

Newsom denies critics’ claims

Gov. Newsom earlier this week responded to his Republican critics on the issue of the Senate Bill 1 funding, saying the money isn’t being redirected as some have claimed.

“I’m confused by it, I think they’re conflating things. Some of them are doing it, respectfully, intentionally. But SB 1 is locked in, that money is used for its intended purposes — period, full stop. One cannot legally redirect those dollars. We have a fix it first framework, roads framework, fix it first. So a lot of confusion out there for, I think, you know, different political reasons and it’s unfortunate,” Newsom told reporters in San Francisco on Wednesday.

“As it relates to the larger issue, this state invests about $17 billion a year on transportation. We’ve never had more abundance in funding and so transportation is a top priority, maintenance is a top priority and when we have discretionary dollars that are set aside as discretionary, we want to be thoughtful about how we use those dollars and plan in a way consistent with our values, particularly our climate values,” Newsom added.

“That means building roads connecting jobs and housing as we’re building those roads, in a thoughtful and judicious way. That’s the whole thing. It’s complicated because we are a nation state, but it’s not very complicated because we made commitments to the voters and we’re keeping them.”

Transportation Secretary David Kim earlier this month said an executive order does not supersede existing state law.

He said gas taxes, including Senate Bill 1 funds, are protected under the state constitution, saying the state “will honor the will of the voters, and this is unchanged by the executive order.”

“Second, the state will continue the “fix it first” approach outlined in SB 1. Maintaining the condition of our highways, roads and bridges is of the utmost importance to the Governor and this approach will continue,” he said.

Sacramento vs. the Valley

The first-term state senator said he’s learned during his year in Sacramento that statewide politics is a much different ball game than his time on the Fresno City Council and Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

Being in Sacramento puts his constituents further away and brings lobbyists closer, he said. Then there’s the issue of how greater political power is held by large urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area.

“The blocs in LA and San Francisco, just don’t care how we live in the Valley,” he said in an interview with The Bee. “There’s no other way to say it. I’m being as genteel as possible. They just don’t care about us for political and financial reasons.”

That’s why it’s so important for Valley representatives to work together in a bipartisan effort, he said.

Future of the Republican party

Borgeas said Californian Republicans need to re-establish their credibility with voters if they expect to hold offices in the overwhelmingly Democratic state.

“We need to make certain we sell ideas, and we sell them in realistic, pragmatic ways,” he said. “As long as you’re not an orthodox zealot, partisan zealot, then you can build relationships with folks whom you may disagree (with) on certain issues.”

State Senate District 8 covers a large region from Death Valley to southern Sacramento, encompassing parts of several Valley counties and stretching to the border with Nevada.

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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.