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10-Cent Gas Tax Increase Proposed by 2 Lawmakers

Times Staff Writer

Responding to a growing deficit in the state highway construction program, two Senate leaders Wednesday proposed raising the gasoline tax 10 cents a gallon and boosting truck weight fees to raise $16 billion over the next 10 years for various transportation projects.

The proposal by Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, would take effect Jan. 1, 1990, if it wins support of two-thirds of the members of both the Assembly and Senate.

But the proposal ran into the immediate opposition of Gov. George Deukmejian because it would impose the tax increase with just a legislative vote, rather than by statewide referendum.

Deukmejian’s press secretary, Kevin Brett, said the governor will insist that any tax proposal be put to the voters. “The governor’s opposition to raising taxes by statute is crystal clear,” Brett said.

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Deukmejian acknowledges the need to raise money to put the highway program into the black, but he prefers using bonds. Voters narrowly defeated a Deukmejian-backed $1-billion transportation bond proposal in the June, 1988, primary election.

Possible Compromise

However, Deukmejian opened the door to a possible compromise this week in his State of the State speech when he said he plans to invite lawmakers, local government officials and business and labor leaders to help him work out a highway funding plan.

The California Department of Transportation is warning that there will be at least a $3.5-billion deficit in the five-year State Transportation Improvement Program of roughly $14 billion. Caltrans officials say they will be able to finance most of the currently scheduled construction projects in the new 1989-90 fiscal year. But they have been warning that unless new revenues are found by June, 1990, they will have to begin delaying projects and scaling back highway maintenance programs.

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The expected deficit applies only to construction and maintenance programs already approved. Various estimates are that state and local governments will be $30 billion to $50 billion short of what they will need to meet California’s transportation needs in the year 2000.

Kopp, in outlining the new proposal, said the state highway account reserve is being depleted at the rate of $25 million a month. At that clip, he said, the reserve will be exhausted by April, 1990.

The Kopp-Roberti proposal would raise about $14 billion with the gasoline tax increase and about $2 billion from higher registration fees on trucks. Mass transit projects would receive $5 billion of the new revenues.

Only sketchy details were released, but some of the projects that would receive money include Phase II of the Los Angeles Metro Rail project, along with other rail projects in the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena and the Century Freeway corridor.

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In San Diego, a portion of the mass transit funding would go to finance extensions of the light rail system and to subsidize commuter rail programs.

The rest of the $16 billion in new money would be divided this way: $2 billion would be used to make operational improvements on highways and local roads, such as synchronization of traffic lights and computer-directed traffic-flow improvements; $4 billion would be split among cities and counties for maintenance and repair of local roads, and $2 billion would be set aside in a special matching fund to help finance projects in which local governments would put up half the money.

The remaining $3 billion would go into the five-year transportation improvement program.

The proposed gas tax increase is complicated by the “Gann limit” on state spending, a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1979. Because the state is now close to the limit, lawmakers would have to ask voters to modify the constitutional provision to allow for all the proposed new spending.

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Roberti said the legislation will make funding for mass transit projects contingent on the consolidation of transportation agencies in counties. He said he would like to see a single agency in Los Angeles County be responsible for construction and operation of all rail systems. That responsibility is now split between the Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

Kopp defended his decision not to seek a popular vote for the tax increase, arguing that Californians would rather have the Legislature decide the question.

The last time the tax increased was in 1983, when it went from 7 cents to 9 cents a gallon. The federal government adds another 9 cents per gallon. (On top of that, the state adds a sales tax of 6 cents per dollar, but that money is not earmarked for highway transportation purposes.)

Assembly Democrats will present their own tax proposal next week. It is expected to call for a tax increase, but not as much as Roberti and Kopp are contemplating.

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