George Boardman: Will California Republicans thwart Trump’s infrastructure agenda?
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California bows to no state when it comes to opposing the Trump Administration. As Attorney General Xavier Becerra proudly pointed out last week, the state has sued the Trumpies 32 times.
This resistance has largely been an endeavor of the state’s constitutional officers, all of them Democrats. But now the Republicans apparently want to join the fun with their effort to repeal the recently enacted 12-cent per gallon gas tax increase.
That last sentence may be a stretch, but the state GOP’s effort to repeal the tax flies in the face of Trump’s effort to get states to raise more revenue to repair our aging infrastructure. Just about the time the state GOP announced it has collected more than enough signatures to get a repeal measure on the November ballot, the U.S. Department of Transportation released new guidelines for states seeking federal funds to repair roads, bridges and other aging infrastructure.
Applicants for DOT grants this year will be judged in part on whether they can show that they have generated “new, non-Federal revenue” to help cover projected costs. That means local agencies that raise taxes or tolls to pay for improvements will be more likely to win some of the $1.5 billion funding available this year.
“It is a priority to encourage both federal and local investment so we can ‘grow the pie’ overall and fix our infrastructure,” said a DOT spokeswoman. Investments like the $5 billion a year the gas tax is expected to generate in California.
But the state’s GOP sees the tax repeal as a way to generate conservative enthusiasm in the November general election that figures to have no Republican on the ballot for Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat, may not get a candidate into the finals for governor, and has to defend seven congressional seats that are deemed vulnerable. That would explain why much of the funding for the initiative came from the California Republican Party and members of the congressional delegation.
But the Republicans may be onto something because a Berkeley/IGS poll revealed that while Californians want to improve our highways, they don’t like the way Gov. Jerry Brown and his allies in the state Legislature decided to fund the work. More than 58 percent of those polled oppose the tax increase, while 35 percent favor it. Voters in all major regions of the state except the Bay Area, all listed races and ethnic subgroups, and all age categories over 30 are unhappy about it.
How the measure was rammed through the state Legislature is hardly a shining example of democracy in action. To get the super majority they needed in each house, Democratic leaders showered the districts of a Democratic assemblywoman and a Republican state senator with the money needed to fund their pet transit projects.
Chad Mayes, the Assembly Republican leader at the time, said the legislators were “bought off. When was the last time any member of the Legislature got $10 million, let alone $427 million for one group of legislators and $500 million for another group of legislators?”
Sensing future opposition when the legislation was passed last year, state leaders immediately started doling out some of the $30 billion in “fix-it-first” funds for local roads and potholes specified in the bill. It’s no coincidence that on the day the initiative signatures were turned in, state transportation officials announced billions of dollars in mass transit improvements.
There’s no denying California’s roadways need a lot of work, which is going to require a lot of money. The federal gasoline tax hasn’t been raised in decades and is being eaten up by inflation. We have to pretty much finance the work ourselves in a state with over 27 million vehicles, almost 400,000 lane miles of streets and highways, and a population that just hit 40 million.
Republicans counter that California motorists already pay plenty of gas tax, but the money isn’t being spent on the maintenance of our roads and highways. As state Senator Ted Gaines said when he announced his opposition to the tax increase: “We already have some of the highest gas taxes and worst roads in the country. California diverts a billion dollars in weight fees away from transportation infrastructure every single year. Lets put the money back into road building before shaking down commuters and businesses for even more.”
Gaines isn’t telling the complete story. About $1.5 billion in weigh-in fees paid by truckers that go to the State Highway Account have been used instead to pay debt service on transportation bonds, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Another $3.4 billion was diverted from transportation accounts in a bipartisan raid by Governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger to patch budget holes from 2001-05 in the aftermath of the dotcom bust. All but $706 million of the money has been returned to the state’s transportation accounts, and the gas tax bill specifies the rest has to be returned in the next three years.
Republicans also complain that the tax increase falls heaviest on poorer rural residents who need their cars to get to work while Tesla-driving plutocrats are getting a free ride until 2020, when $100 will be tacked onto their registration fees. They have a point.
Experts are predicting this summer will be the most expensive driving season since 2014, not good news in the state that already has the highest gas prices in the 48 contiguous states. This could create a lot of headwinds for business and other interests that want to retain the tax increase.
If the initiative makes it onto the ballot and passes, California won’t be onboard with Trump’s priorities. Not known for delving into the nuances of the situation or worrying about the details, the president is likely to view the vote as just more California obstructionism.
Of course, if the president is actually paying attention, erstwhile Republican House leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy may have some explaining to do.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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