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Capitol Journal

Opponents of Gov. Brown's transportation plan say road money has been misused in the past — they're wrong

The chief argument against raising taxes on motorists to pay for road repairs is that Sacramento Democrats can’t be trusted.

They have a rotten history, Republicans contend, of stealing the drivers’ tax money and spending it on nontransportation goodies.

And that argument is basically bunkum.

It’s a convenient excuse to vote against unpopular tax hikes. It plays well with the public’s perpetual-but-rising mistrust of government. And more than that, it feeds the natural desire of people to make someone else pay for things they want.

Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to patch up roads — and correct past mistakes — before term limits oust him after next year.

Brown admits he didn’t pay enough attention to road construction his first time as governor from 1975 to 1983. In fact, many blame Brown for starting the erosion of our once-superb highway system.

“I didn’t realize how much our roads and infrastructure … cost,” Brown said in a rare gubernatorial appearance before a legislative committee Monday. “Since that time there has been a continued deterioration.”

Brown also noted the irony of it all: “When I was governor [the first time], it was the Republicans who were beating down my door for a gas tax. That time, they wanted to do 5 cents. I said, ‘No, we’ll let you have 2.’ So the shoe is on the other foot now.”

The last time the Legislature raised the gas tax was when a Republican governor, George Deukmejian, pushed for it. That was in 1989. Now there apparently is no Republican in the Capitol who will even think about voting for Brown’s proposed tax hike.

The tax boost roughly a quarter-century ago wasn’t adjustable for inflation, so now it buys about half as much concrete. Also, motorists are pumping fewer gallons because today’s vehicles are more fuel-efficient. Consequently, the state has a huge backlog of needed repairs and not enough money.

“I have a chart here,” Brown told the Assembly Transportation Committee, pointing to it.

“The red line, $8 billion going to $9.2 billion — that is the [annual] needs. Here’s what we’re spending, down here at $2.5 billion. That’s a gap. What I’m telling you is whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, or a man or a woman, that gap is real … a huge gap that is getting bigger. It’s a very simple proposition. Pay now or pay later — and pay a hell of a lot more.”

Brown and Democratic legislative leaders are proposing to raise motorists’ taxes by $5.2 billion annually.

They want to increase the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and diesel by 20 cents. They’d hike the diesel sales tax by 4 percentage points. There’d be a new annual fee on vehicles based on their worth, ranging from $25 to $175. And electric cars that don’t burn gas would be assessed $100 annually.

Here’s how all that would be spent: 65% on fixing state and local roads, 20% for transit, a portion for improving truck access around ports and some for bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

Also, there’d be a constitutional amendment to prevent any of that new money from being spent on anything but transportation.

Democrats wanted to get it passed by Thursday before everyone takes off on spring break. Friday is also Brown’s birthday — maybe coincidentally, maybe not. But the tax legislation needs a two-thirds vote in both houses, and passage wasn’t looking very promising late Wednesday. Even some Democrats were holding out, looking for backroom deals.

Updates from Sacramento »

This is a typical Republican response from Sen. Scott Wilk of Antelope Valley, who represents many long-commuters who buy gas by the barrel:

“Californians already pay the highest taxes in the nation toward our roads, but Democrats in the Legislature have redirected, repurposed and redistributed our money to pork-barrel projects and gubernatorial pipe dreams like high-speed rail, rather than taking action on failing roads.”

OK, one at a time.

California’s combined gas tax and fees ranks eighth in the nation, not first, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators.

No transportation money has been redistributed to high-speed rail. (But, yes, it is a pipe dream.)

As for redirecting the money to “pork-barrel projects,” that’s the real bunkum.

A brief history:

Highway funding had always been financed strictly by user fees — taxes at the pump, truck weight fees, registrations — until 2000. The state was rolling in money so Gov. Gray Davis decided to spend $2 billion from the general fund on one-time transportation projects.

Whoops! The general fund started running short. So two years later, the general fund “borrowed” back $1.2 billion from Caltrans, which got the money as a gift in the first place. The state still owes $706 million. Under Brown’s legislation, it would be paid back in three years.

Then there are the truck weight fees. Lobbied by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, voters in 2006 voted to borrow nearly $20 billion for transportation infrastructure. Those bonds were to be paid off by — big mistake — the general fund, which feeds off income, sales and business taxes.

But when the recession hit and the general fund was bleeding tens of billions in red ink, Democrats grabbed $1 billion annually in weight fees and used the money to repay the transportation bonds. But it was still being spent on transportation.

“We all have our politics, but at some point you have to look truth in the eye,” Brown told committee members.

That’s probably asking way too much these days: To look truth in the eye.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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