California Legislature votes to raise gas taxes, vehicle fees by $5.2 billion a year for road repairs and transit

After a week of fierce debate between opposing interests, the state Legislature on Thursday approved a plan to raise gas taxes and vehicle fees by $5.2 billion a year to pay for the repair of California’s pothole-ridden, decaying system of roads, highways and bridges.

The bill squeaked through the Senate on a 27-11 vote and cleared the Assembly with 54 votes, the bare minimum required in both houses.

The measure sparked suspenseful wrangling in the waning hours of Thursday, with Assembly Democrats initially three votes short of securing the two-thirds threshold needed to approve a new tax. Ultimately, all but one Assembly Democrat, Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), backed the bill.

The plan was forcefully pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown as a necessary response to 23 years without a gas tax increase, which has resulted in a backlog of $130 billion in repair and replacement projects throughout the state.

"The Democratic Party is the party of doing things, and tonight we did something to fix the roads of California,” Brown said after the vote.

State Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) said his bill will boost the economy and fix a crumbling road system that is unsafe.

"If we are able to have better maintained roads, we could prevent accidents and deaths and help have a better outcome in terms of traffic congestion," Beall said during the two-hour floor debate.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who negotiated the package with Brown and other Senate and Assembly leaders, said the state’s roads have suffered from decades of neglect and must be addressed.

“Sooner or later, you have to pay that bill,” he said. “And let's do it now, and let's do it pay as you go.”

Brown and the legislative leaders set a self-imposed deadline for action on the bill by Thursday before the Legislature’s spring recess.

Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda voted against the bill, saying his constituents were against higher taxes as proposed by a 2-1 margin. But Brown and De León persuaded Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres to vote in favor of the measure, reaching the two-thirds vote needed for passage.

The governor and legislative leaders ended up giving nearly $1 billion to specific transportation projects in the districts of legislators who had been on the fence before voting for Senate Bill 1. Brown and De León agreed to provide $500 million for projects in Cannella’s district, including the extension of a commuter rail line from the Bay Area to Merced.

“At the end of the day I asked for certain things and they delivered them, so I needed to vote for it,” Cannella told reporters afterward.

Cannella described the conversations with his fellow Republicans as “very tense.”

Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), whose district also benefits from the funds, praised the bill on the floor as a "package that provides new money so that the state can keep its commitment to local communities that need potholes filled, that needs roads built and maintained."

Senate Republican leader Jean Fuller of Bakersfield criticized the Democrats for providing nearly $1 billion to districts as sweeteners to win votes.

“I think it’s a very bad precedent,” Fuller said. “It just encourages people to vote for things for the wrong reasons.”

The other Republicans opposed the tax increase, saying the money should instead be taken from a general fund that has swollen by $36 billion in recent years. They also called for diverting non-bond money from Brown’s proposed high-speed train project.

Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula) said the tax hikes will hurt small businesses and low-income families, who he said would have to choose between buying gas or food.

“The state Senate tonight passed yet another tax on hardworking Californians because we continue to fail the people by wasting money on programs we can't afford,” Stone said after the vote.

Final details were unveiled last week for the legislation, which will raise the base excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon, bringing it to 30 cents. Another variable excise tax will be set at 17 cents.

The excise tax on diesel fuel will jump 20 cents per gallon and the sales tax on diesel will go up four percentage points. Electric car owners will pay a $100 annual fee.

The package also creates an annual vehicle fee ranging from $25 for cars valued at under $5,000, to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more.

About $34 billion of the first $52 billion raised will go to repairing roads, bridges, highways and culverts, with most of the money split 50-50 between state and local projects.

An additional $7 billion over the first decade will go to mass transit projects. Other money will fund improvements to trade corridors, including the roads serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and will go toward reducing congestion on the most clogged commuter routes.

Updates from Sacramento »

The bill was opposed by several agricultural industry groups, including the Western Growers’ Assn. and the California Farm Bureau Federation, whose representatives worried that the additional costs of fuel will be a difficult financial burden for farmers.

Several environmental groups, including the Coalition for Clean Air, objected to a provision of the bill that they said ties the hands of air quality regulators who might want to adopt new rules to provide for cleaner operations of existing trucks.

The California Chamber of Commerce, cities, counties and labor groups supported the measure.

The Senate also approved a measure for the June 2018 ballot that would prohibit borrowing the new money for non-transportation programs.

The arm-twisting by the governor and Democratic leaders began in earnest Wednesday afternoon and continued through the day Thursday.

The deal to spend $500 million for transit and road construction in the northern Central Valley was struck at the governor’s mansion late Wednesday night and other negotiations continued past dawn. Later, the governor's office agreed to pump $427 million into the Riverside districts of Sen. Richard Roth and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, both Democrats and holdouts whose votes were crucial to securing passage.

Extra effort was put into wooing Cervantes, whose defeat of an incumbent Republican last year makes her a prime target for the GOP to unseat in 2018. Mid-afternoon, Cervantes huddled with De León, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) and Nancy McFadden, the governor's top aide.

Also present was Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), who has deep ties to Cervantes. Her father, Greg Cervantes, a former mayor of Coachella, was a political mentor to Garcia.

Cervantes was absent from the Assembly floor for most of the afternoon, while lawmakers took up bills unrelated to transportation.

The scrounging for votes was complicated by the sudden absence of another member, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who went to the emergency room after suffering from severe weakness and nausea.

By the time the Assembly finally took up the measure about 8:30 p.m., Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Oakley) alluded to the rocky path the transportation package had to travel.

"Members,” Frazier said, “it's been a long, crumbling road to get where we are today."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com; melanie.mason@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99; @melmason

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Updates from Sacramento


UPDATES:

11:30 p.m.: This article was updated with results of the Assembly vote.

This article was first published at 9:40 p.m.

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