Raising gasoline taxes to repair the state’s crumbling infrastructure

Raising gasoline taxes to repair the state’s crumbling infrastructure

S. E. Williams

“I know this is a political concern because people don’t like gas taxes. But, what do you do?” – Governor Jerry Brown before the Senate Appropriations Committee, April 3, 2017

State legislators worked late into the night on Thursday and ultimately delivered the “yes” votes needed to raise gasoline taxes in California for the first time in 23 years.

Although the legislation easily cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday along a (5 to 2) party-line vote, it faced a tough road to final approval last week. It was staunchly opposed by Republicans; while many Democrats on the other hand, including some in the inland region, held out and negotiated tough side-deals in exchange for their “yes” votes.

One example of such negotiations certain to benefit the inland region involved the efforts of Senator Richard Roth (D-Riverside) and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona). They held their votes until the budget was revised to include $427 million for transportation projects in Riverside County—an effort Roth has championed for years.

Their negotiations included $180 million for construction of a connector between State Route 91 and Interstate 15 North; in addition to $84.4 million for a McKinley Street bridge over a busy section of railroad tracks.

These extractions were highly praised by many in the region; however, nothing was specifically negotiated for the direct benefit of the community of San Bernardino—an area certain to be impacted by the legislation.

Many workers who live in the inland area must commute long distances to their jobs—some travelling between sixty and ninety miles each day. In addition, the inland region has one of the highest poverty rates in the state—as a result, the tax increase is almost certain to pose a fiscal challenge for many living in the area.

Senate Bill 1 is expected to raise $52.4 billion through increased taxes and fees over a ten-year period. It includes a constitutional amendment requiring the funds be spent on issues related to transportation.  It imposes a $100 per year fee on all zero-emissions vehicles. It also calls for a 12-cent per gallon increase in gasoline taxes; a 20-cent per gallon increase in diesel taxes, and a 5.75 percent increase in diesel sales taxes. In addition, it will increase vehicle license fees an average of $38 per vehicle.

Among other fees included in the legislation is what has been defined as a vehicle “worth” fee that could range from $25 annually for the owners of vehicles worth $5,000 or less; to an annual fee of $175 annually for owners whose vehicles are worth $60,000 or more.  As required of any legislation aimed at raising taxes, the bill needed a two-third majority vote in both state houses to become law.

On Tuesday, Governor Brown visited Riverside’s North Park and personally made his pitch on SB1 to the inland region. Despite being met by a small group of citizens who protested the legislation, Brown expressed his concern that if the bill did not pass this time, “We won’t ever get it.”

Brown was joined at the press conference by a number of local representatives including several City Council members from Perris and Moreno Valley; in addition to Assemblyman Jose Medina, (D-Riverside); Riverside County Supervisors Chuck Washington and John Tavaglione; and Mayors Rusty Bailey of Riverside and Dick Haley of Corona.

Brown was also joined at the conference by a couple of other big-guns in the Democratic Party including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, (D-Paramount) and Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León, (D-Los Angeles). Together, members of the Democratic leadership made a strong plea to the inland community to support the legislation.

Brown made a Herculean push in support of the legislation’s passage. His sense of urgency appeared rooted in reports that indicated the cost of state highway repairs had thus far increased to $50 billion; while the estimate to repair local roads, stood at $78 billon.

The Governor summed up his quest for expediency regarding the legislation when he told reporters, “Fixing the roads will not get cheaper by waiting, or ignoring the problem.” He also expressed his confidence that the Road and Accountability Act of 2017 is a “Smart Plan that will improve the quality of life in California.”

When the legislation passed late Thursday night, Governor Brown praised the only Republican Senator, Anthony Cannella—a civil engineer, for his support of the bill. “He knows what it means to build roads and that's good," Brown proclaimed. Cannella's yes vote came after a promise of $500 million for new transportation projects in his district. Cannella explained his vote as follows. "This state cannot continue to just put asphalt band-aids on potholes when what we really need is major road and rail surgery to keep Californians and their economy moving."

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