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Transit groups mull lawsuit

Transit advocates are using the threat of a lawsuit–or the ballot box–in an effort to bolster their negotiating position in this year’s budget talks. The move comes after advocates blasted the governor for what they say are $1.3 billion in cuts to the state’s budget for public transit.
“There are going to have to be serious discussions,” said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, chairman of the Assembly Budget subcommittee on transportation. Feuer stopped short of saying a lawsuit or initiative drive was in the works, saying, “I hope we can have those discussions now, in the context of the budget. Transit cannot continue to get the short end of the stick.”
Joshua Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association, said his members are fed up with what they view as continuing raids by the general fund on money that is supposed to be used for public transit.
“Our members feel like we may be out of options,” he said. “We think the law is on our side. We’re looking at all of our options.”
State law mandates that sales-tax revenues from gasoline sales be put into a special account and only used for transit projects. But that definition has been fungible in the past. Money from the account was used, one year, to help fund the seismic retrofitting of the Bay Area bridges, the rationale being that buses use the bridges on their regular transit routes.
In this year’s budget, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bean counters got creative again with the definition of transit.
The governor has proposed reallocating more than $600 million in money from the Public Transportation Account to pay for home-to-school transportation, arguing that yellow school buses fall under the category of public transit. Currently, home-to-school transportation is paid for out of the state’s general fund.
During her analysis of the governor’s May budget revision, Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill raised her own concerns about the administration’s proposal.
“Based on our discussions with [Legislative] Counsel, we believe that
is legally unworkable,” Hill said of the
proposal.
The governor’s office disagrees, and says the money in the PTA can indeed be used to bus students to and from school.
“Do we see this as a reduction? It’s the opposite,” said Mike Genest, director of the Department of Finance. “It’s a massive increase, even after we take the spillover and use it for other purposes. How is a 300 million year over year increase defined as a cut?”
Genest said the state fund accounts for a miniscule portion of transit agency’s overall budget. “You’re talking a tiny fraction of their total money in play. They don’t run their transit systems on state money,” he said. “Most of it comes from local revenue and rider fares.”
The administration points out that transit is scheduled to receive $1.3 billion in bond funding over the next three budget years, thanks to Proposition 1B, which was approved by voters in 2006. And, they say, increased revenues due to high as prices will provide “at least $100 million in program growth” for public transit.
It is a classic budget question. Does a smaller-than-anticipated increase constitute a budget cut? These types of political semantics foreshadow the budget negotiations to come.
And so, the battle lines are drawn for a budget showdown. But transit officials say they are exploring legal remedies to wall off funds in the PTA, similar to the protections local governments and transportation projects have received from voters in recent election cycles.
The governor’s critics say there is a disconnect between the governor’s focus to lower greenhouse-gas emissions while simultaneously cutting funding for public transit.
Those sentiments were articulated by Speaker Fabian N


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