Budget accord offers bumpy roads for locals

Next time you hit a pothole or drive through a bumpy stretch of poorly maintained road, you may have those folks in Sacramento to thank.

One piece of a budget-balancing plan proposed by the Schwarzenegger administration and approved by a two-house conference committee is to take fuel-tax money that normally would go to cities and counties and use it instead to pay the debt service on transportation bonds.

The proposal is in the budget document that will go before the Legislature this week. The governor and legislative leaders announced agreement on a spending blueprint Monday night.

“It’s a money grab,” said Matt Rexroad, a Yolo County supervisor. “The roads of tens of thousands of people will be affected in Yolo County alone.”

Through next summer, more than $980 million would be diverted from the Highway Users Tax Account, plus another $750 million through June 2011. The HUTA, called “Hoota” in the Capitol, is derived from the 18-cent excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuel.

The state, struggling to resolve an immediate, $26.3 billion shortage, is looking for ways to eliminate red ink. The diversion of HUTA funds is one of several cost-saving devices. The proposal, which is still being negotiated, requires approval from both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s signature to become law.

The HUTA funds are not the only source of transportation money for the locals, but they are a critical source of road-maintenance funding. The change proposed by budget writers would result in the layoffs statewide of about 4,000 road workers. An initial proposal from the administration sought a longer time period -even a permanent shift- but the budget conference committee, controlled by Democrats, cut it to two years.

Because of population and miles driven, Los Angeles County would take the greatest cut, about $109 million; the county’s 88 incorporated cities also would face cuts.

“What the state is doing here is raiding the counties’ monies that are earmarked for streets and roads in order to pay off debt service,” said Dan Wall, a lobbyist for Los Angeles County. “It stops road work locally, which means lots of people don’t get paid for those jobs. This is more of a ‘Hail Mary’ pass while they are trying to figure out how to balance the budget."

Los Angeles supervisors, supporting the statewide California State Association of Counties, favor a temporary, 5-cent increase in the gas tax, which would allow the state to pay for road maintenance and prevent those jobs from being lost, as well as pay down the bonds.

“Also, taking of the local HUTA funding would be a dramatic reversal of the priority the state has given in recent years to public Infrastructure throughout California. The public strongly supports not just maintaining but actually improving infrastructure…,” Solano County supervisors said on June 23.

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