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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of Transportation California, a nonpartisan coalition of business and labor interests, said that if the gas tax hike is repealed, Californians won’t like the results.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.”

 

 


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