California gas-tax hike for roads? Oh, heck no

We oppose the 10-year, $52 billion gas tax proposal put together by Brown and Democratic leadership that is headed to a self-imposed deadline vote Thursday.
We oppose the 10-year, $52 billion gas tax proposal put together by Brown and Democratic leadership that is headed to a self-imposed deadline vote Thursday. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

We’ve grown accustomed to hearing Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers brag about California’s booming economy and their cutting-edge leadership.

So, if both of those claims are true, an obvious question arises: Why must Californians, especially the estimated 15.6 million living below or just slightly above the poverty line, dig deeper into their pockets to fix the state’s notoriously deterioriating roads?

The answer is, California’s crumbling roads and highways are the direct result of failed leadership in Sacramento, where billions of transportation dollars have been diverted to pay for other things.

But now that California’s highways are nearing the point of no-return, state leaders want, as Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, wrote in a commentary for The Bee, “poor and middle-income families to bail them out with the largest gas tax increase in California history.”

Thus, we oppose the 10-year, $52 billion proposal put together by Brown and Democratic leadership that is headed to a self-imposed deadline vote Thursday.

Let us spell our objections and then provide a path forward that will improve roads, reduce congestion and spare drivers some of the financial pain Democrats want to inflict:

▪ This problem requires a fix combining Democratic and Republican approaches. We said this in a Jan. 23 editorial, and nothing that has happened since has convinced us otherwise.

▪ We don’t support legislation accompanied by artificial deadlines. Anything worth doing is worth the time required to get it right. Artificial deadlines are a political trick and often result in costly unintended consequences.

▪ Californians already pay some of the highest fuel taxes in the nation – levies that include a 2.25% sales tax that primarily funds local government and a nearly 28-cent-a-gallon excise tax designated for public roads and mass transit.

▪ While Republicans and Democrats opposed to cap-and-trade inflated the projected costs of the so-called “hidden gas tax” a couple of years ago, cap-and-trade consequences could send gasoline prices soaring near the end of the decade, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office.

▪ The proposal adds nothing to the kitty to build new roads; this gaping hole in the plan will only lead to more traffic congestion.

▪ The diesel tax increase would hurt farmers, as would truck rules in the bill.

What is the better way to go?

Drop the excise tax increase of 12 cents a gallon. This will help “Joe the landscaper” and other small entrepreneurs stay in business. This will also stop the gas tax from being more regressive than it already is.

We have no problem with raising the vehicle license fee. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut it to rock-bottom as a valentine to car dealerships backing him in the 2003 recall of Gray Davis. We also like charging electric-vehicle owners a $100 fee because they don’t pay fuel taxes funding road maintenance.

A portion of transportation funds should be designated for new roads, and there must not be any exceptions, loopholes or off-ramps in guarantees the new taxes will be dedicated to transportation.

Any transportation plan that asks taxpayers for additional funding should be accompanied by environmental-review reform leading to faster and less costly road repairs. This will stretch new taxpayer dollars sent to Sacramento.

Now for the politics directly ahead: The governor needs two-third majorities in the Assembly and the Senate for the Senate Bill 1 transportation funding package to pass.

We doubt that he will get the votes. Taxes are difficult to pass, and there are liberal Democrats who object to a provision that eases air-quality rules on diesel trucks.

It’s also doubtful any Republicans will vote “yes,” although Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, has signaled he would sign on if requests on his wish list are met.

Our hope is that this tax-and-spend bill will die, thus forcing Brown and the Democrats to negotiate with Republicans and other stakeholders to come up with something that fixes roads, builds new ones and works for all Californians.

That truly would be cutting-edge leadership.