The Legislature reconvened Monday after a monthlong summer recess and immediately focused on what most members like best: spending money.
The 2015-16 state budget was enacted in June, but three big financial issues were postponed – raising and spending billions of dollars on transportation, raising and spending billions more on the Medi-Cal program of health care for the poor, and spending about $3 billion in “cap-and-trade” carbon emission fees.
There’s no shortage of proposals on all three, but as they multiply, packages that can win the requisite number of votes become more elusive.
The most difficult of the three is transportation. Gov. Jerry Brown called a special session on repairing the state’s deteriorating highways, but almost immediately, local government officials said if fees or taxes are raised, they want an equal share of the money for their roads and streets.
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Then the folks who run buses, trolleys and other public transit systems said they, too, want some of the money for their projects.
Suddenly, instead of the $59 billion in roadwork cited by Brown, the issue ballooned into $78 billion in local roadway repairs and $72 billion in transit “maintenance and expansion needs.”
It was difficult, bordering on the impossible, to put together a package just for state highways, but now it’s a $209 billion nut to be cracked.
Each transportation segment has its pressure group and cadre of friendly legislators, but the overarching factor is what appears to be solid opposition by Republicans to new taxes, which would need two-thirds legislative votes.
GOP legislators are under pressure from conservative anti-tax groups – a situation complicated by maneuvering among Republican Assembly members over electing their next floor leader.
Senate Republican leader Bob Huff said “there’s no support in our caucus” for the Democrats’ road tax package, adding that there’s been “no reform … to better use the money we have.”
Republican resistance to new taxes also could affect plans to generate more money for Medi-Cal, including a boost in physicians’ reimbursement rates.
At least to that extent, the road repair and Medi-Cal tax issues are intertwined, while spending cap-and-trade funds could be pulled into dickering over transportation financing.
Carbon emission funds are already raised, making them, in a political sense, free money, which is why nearly $5 billion in cap-and-trade spending bills are kicking around. And much of it comes from fees on auto fuel, which is a nexus of sorts.
Republicans want to spend some carbon fees on roads, rather than raise taxes, and the public transportation lobby believes it has a claim because transit services reduce emissions.
Does all of this mean there may be one big political deal that encompasses all three leftover issues?
It could happen, but it could just as easily become a thicket of competing political and financial interests that’s too dense to produce anything of lasting import.