Gas tax fuels 2018 political fight

Traffic on the 405 in Los Angeles, the nation's busiest freeway. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

California’s new gas tax hike to fund billions of dollars worth of overdue road repairs has only been in effect for a little over a month but Republicans are already trying to overturn it.

On Nov. 1, Senate Bill 1, signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in the spring after a fierce political battle, increased the excise tax on gas by 12 cents a gallon and the excise tax on diesel fuel by 20 cents a gallon.

“If we don’t undertake fixing our system now, it will get increasingly worse at an exponential rate.” — Roger Dickinson

The bill, part of a package, also adds a new annual vehicle registration fee of $25-$175 depending on the value of the car beginning Jan. 1. The legislation, backed by Democrats and opposed by most Republicans, will raise about $5.2 billion annually for road and bridge repairs, and expanded mass transit.

“Safe and smooth roads make California a better place to live and strengthen our economy,” Brown noted when he signed the legislation. “This legislation will put thousands of people to work.”

Roger Dickinson, executive director of Transportation California, a nonpartisan coalition of business and labor interests, said that if the gas tax hike is repealed, Californians won’t like the results. “If we don’t undertake fixing our system now, it will get increasingly worse at an exponential rate,” said Dickinson, a former Sacramento County supervisor and state legislator.

Reform California, a Republican-led group with a mission to fight wasteful spending in state and local government, has launched a drive to get an initiative on the November 2018 ballot to overturn the tax hike.  The initiative would also require that future tax hikes be approved by voters. The measure needs 587,407 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot.

“Sacramento politicians have seized on every opportunity to divert gas tax revenues from their intended purpose, fixing roads.” — Jon Coupal

Republican Carl DeMaio, chairman of Reform California and a former San Diego City Councilman, argues that the state already has enough money to fix the roads and that politicians will just use the money on other causes like parkland acquisition and mass transit.

“The money has been stolen time and time again,” he said. “The only people who like the gas tax are politicians,” he said.

The repeal is backed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which was spawned by the landmark, property-tax-cutting Proposition 13 of 1978.

Jon Coupal, the group’s president, said in a written statement that “Sacramento politicians have seized on every opportunity to divert gas tax revenues from their intended purpose, fixing roads. As the roads predictably deteriorate, they plead poverty and justify digging deeper into taxpayers’ pockets.”

Democrats argue say the tax hike is necessary to address the $59 billion in deferred maintenance on California state highways. They also pointed out that this is the first time the state has increased the gas tax in 23 years and that the state’s population has grown by 8 million during that time with millions more cars and trucks on the roads.

 Californians are now spending an average of $762 a year on repairs from road-related damage.

The bill “will not only repair our highways and roads, but will also address the over 500 bridges in California currently requiring major repair, including the nearly 400 that are considered structurally deficient.  This will drive our economy, create jobs, while decreasing traffic delays and providing for a smoother commute,” Robbie Hunter, head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, said earlier in a written statement.

The state’s battered roads sunk to a whole new level of disrepair last winter during heavy storms, and Dickinson says the tax hike is necessary.

“It’s not just worthwhile, it’s essential if we’re going to be able to move people and goods through our communities and through the state of California,” he said.

Californians are now spending an average of $762 a year on repairs from road-related damage, he added.

“Transportation is a basic need to live and work and raise a family.” — Ted Gaines

As to the concern about the money going to non-road-related repairs, Dickinson said two-thirds of the money from the bill is directly going to road repairs and all of it is for transportation. He defended the bill’s $750 million allocation to mass transit, saying that a lot of people in the state rely on it and that older vehicles need to be replaced.

He also noted that the legislation contains a $5 million investment in workforce training.

“Right now we’re facing a shortage of skilled and trained workers to do the actual work on the street,” he said, adding that there is an emphasis on bringing minorities into the construction workforce.

Republican Sen. Ted Gaines of El Dorado Hills isn’t buying it.

“Apparently, we’re in a legislative contest to see how expensive we can make staple goods and how unlivable we can make this state for the poor and middle class,” he said. “We aren’t taxing champagne and caviar. Transportation is a basic need to live and work and raise a family.”



  • CharliePeters

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  • edsully

    The gas tax repeal initiative by Travis Allen is a fraud. There is a maintenance backlog of $132 billion in needed road repairs for state highways and local streets and roads. Bad roads cost California drivers an additional $762 per year in vehicle maintenance
    costs from driving on crumbling roads. The gas tax hasn’t been increased since
    1994 and if you factor in the rate of inflation, the increase voted on by the
    legislature just brings the gas tax up to where it would have been if it had
    kept pace with inflation

    Caltrans isn’t going to find an extra $5 billion a year by rifling its sofa cushions.
    And Congress, as it’s presently constituted, isn’t going to do any favors for
    California. Even with the newly enacted taxes, there won’t be enough money to
    erase the $132 billion backlog in road, highway and bridge maintenance needs
    around the state. But it will provide a $52 billion down payment, at a
    per-driver cost estimated at a little more than $2 a week.

    Don’t fall for false claims that this money will only pad salaries at Caltrans and
    other public agencies, or that it will be chewed up by the governor’s
    high-speed rail project. The legislation that authorized the gas tax earmarks
    $33.7 billion for maintenance and repair projects, $3.8 billion for congestion
    relief and $2 billion for local projects around the state, with spending on
    planning and research limited to less than 1 percent of the revenue.

    High-speed rail isn’t eligible for funding, though there is $8.7 billion for transit.
    That’s OK. Putting more people aboard buses and commuter trains will reduce
    traffic congestion on streets and freeways.

    25 other states, including 18 with GOP governors and 17 with Republican-controlled legislatures, have raised their gas taxes, too. Why? Because they know roads need to be maintained, maintenance costs money, and roads traditionally have been user-funded.

    • Mike N

      So how do you explain the legislature raiding the Gas Tax Fund.
      Those who can not see it are in it.

  • Jerry

    The CA has plenty of money, but they just have messed up priorities. I lived in CA for 52 years and was on a small town city council and saw numerous times the state play the shell game with tax prayers money. Put money from the lottery to schools and then take some of the existing school funding away. Raise income taxes for schools, but take some of the existing school funding away. Cities use to get Gas Tax money to fix roads, but the state now mandates a small town have mass transit, 2 miles by 2 miles. We could have bought all the underserved residence a used car for what the city had to waste on a small bus service so it could get a few crumbs left over from the mass transit mandate for road repairs. We wasted millions on a bus service that didn’t even get $0.10 on the Dollar in farebox income. 90% subsidized was state rule, but we were more like 95% subsidizing ridership with Gas Tax dollars. CA already has enough gas tax on cars which also pay one of the highest registration fees, but the state still robs the new gas tax for mass transit and workforce training even in the latest bill. All the construction contractors will pay their employees Davis Bacon wages by law so I think there will be plenty of takers for the billions in contracts without union cash cow of workforce training with gas tax dollars. How about lowering or eliminating Davis Bacon requirement like most inland cities would like so what few dollars they have trickling down from state could go farther. San Diego tried, but got slapped the state over trying to be efficient. I now live across the border in NV with better roads and yet pay less in taxes and gasoline. CA just does not spend the billions on true priorities.

  • RegisteredDemocrat

    As a resident of California, we need a mileage tax. It’s the only fair way to repair roads. Trucks, SUV’s, and Crossovers should pay more per mile, and EV’s should be exempt. I’m the first to admit that taxes are way too low.

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