Capitol Journal

Brown gets cranking on highways and healthcare

Gov. Jerry Brown shakes his usual caution to push for higher taxes for healthcare and highways

Gov. Jerry Brown finally is kicking it in gear on California highways.

For years — going back to his first governorship in the '70s — he annoyingly sat in idle.

Now Brown has decided to fill up the tax tank to fuel spending on badly needed repairs, restoring the gleam to California's highway system.

"The roads are running down," he told reporters last week in calling a special legislative session to raise money for road-fixing. "If your roof is leaking, you'd better plug it up or you're going to pay more later."

What prompted this?

"I think somebody finally got to him and said, 'You'd better do something or you're in trouble,'" surmises Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Beall (D-San Jose), who long has advocated paying more attention to highways.

"Does he want to leave the place better than when he came in? If he doesn't do anything, he's going to leave things worse. It doesn't do any good to have a balanced budget if everything is falling apart."

Simultaneously, Brown rushed to aid California's healthcare program for the poor, Medi-Cal, which is running short of money as he expands it. He and the Legislature, for example, just decided to cover immigrant children who are here illegally.

But a bigger money problem is that the state has been taxing Medi-Cal managed care plans to help fund the program. Now the federal government has ordered that stopped, creating a $1.1-billion hole.

So the governor will try to raise taxes for Medi-Cal, too, in a special legislative session. One idea: increased tobacco taxes.

Why special sessions? Why not just work on bills in the regular session?

First, governors believe they earn PR points when they call special sessions, which were a much bigger deal when the Legislature operated part time half a century ago.

But there still are some advantages to a special session. A governor can focus the Legislature's attention — and presumably some of the public's — on a subject. He can set the lawmakers' agenda unless they simply ignore him, which isn't likely when the governor and legislative leaders are of the same party.

Legislating can be expedited. Committee hearings can be held immediately. Normally, there's a 30-day waiting period after a bill is introduced.

These are two very important, aggressive moves — trying to hike taxes for highways and healthcare — by a governor who often is agonizingly cautious.

Tax increases, however, require a two-thirds vote. So he'll need some Republican help because Democrats lost their briefly held supermajority in the last election

He's more likely to get it for highways than healthcare for the poor.

Look at the numbers: There are 12.4 million enrolled in Medi-Cal, nearly one-third of the population. That's a ton. But it's only half the number of licensed drivers, many of them vital cogs who keep the economy rolling.

The problem for adequate highway funding is that cars have become so fuel-efficient that drivers are pumping less gas. So the gas tax is falling far short of what was projected when it was last raised in 1990. Brown says it's producing $2.3 billion annually for maintenance and repairs, but $5.7 billion more is needed.

Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff (R-San Dimas) told me he thinks "there's some room" for a gas tax increase. But raising taxes for Medi-Cal is a "thornier issue" and "problematic."

"Transportation is a lot easier to get your arms around," the GOP leader says.

The influential business lobby feels the same way.

"If Republicans want to vote for taxes for transportation, I'm absolutely fine with it," says Allan Zaremberg, president of the state Chamber of Commerce. "I just want to make sure the money is spent on transportation."

Zaremberg says private polling shows that Californians "think the roads are in terrible shape, but they don't want to raise taxes. They believe we're already paying a lot of money and it's being used for something else."

Beall has introduced legislation to raise several fuel and vehicle levies. And one provision guarantees that the money will be spent only for road repairs.

Another thing people insist on, Beall says, is that "everybody else pays their fair share." That's why he's advocating a mix of taxes.

The senator proposes increasing the current 36-cent-per-gallon state gas tax by 10 cents, enough to match inflation since 1990, he says. Diesel taxes would rise 12 cents, with some of it used to relieve truck congestion around ports. He'd gradually hike the annual vehicle license fee from 0.65% of market value to 1%. And he'd boost the $43 registration fee by $35.

Plus, Beall would tack on a $100 surcharge for electric vehicles that don't use any gas. "They're actually pretty heavy" and tear up roads faster than gas-burning cars, he says.

Brown may not buy that. He's trying to promote zero-emission vehicles. "Calling them out" with extra taxes "is a bit counter" to the governor's policy, says his budget director, Michael Cohen.

Beall's legislation would raise about $4 billion annually. Half would go to the state, half to cities and counties.

Other ideas: charging tolls for single-occupied vehicles to use carpool lanes. Somehow assessing a mileage fee, which the state is studying for the future.

"We have massive underfunding," Brown says, "and one way or the other, we're going to have to find some solutions."

He'll need to drive aggressively, pedal to the metal.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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