Gov. George Deukmejian ended his second “summit” with legislative, business and labor leaders on Tuesday without reaching consensus on critical tax issues associated with a $20-billion rebuilding program for the the state’s transportation system.
In a 2 1/2-hour meeting, participants said the governor steered the discussion to such subjects as urban congestion and state and local government coordination on transportation problems but deliberately avoided the thorny political issue of a gasoline tax increase.
“Everyone is still talking. That is the plus side, but the big issues are still out there,” said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. “There seems to be a desire to build up some momentum before we get to the revenue question. . . . I am concerned that the difficult issues are being discussed later. Yes, I am concerned with that.”
Added Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), “We didn’t decide too much--just an overview of the issues.”
It was Deukmejian’s second attempt to forge a compromise with business, labor and legislative leaders on long-range plans for relieving traffic congestion and coping with the transportation needs of an exploding population.
The same group met last month and concluded after a three-hour meeting that the state’s transportation system will need an additional $20 billion in the next decade to restore deteriorating highways and keep pace with traffic demands.
Left unresolved at both meetings was the role the gasoline tax would play in raising the $20 billion. Legislative leaders and representatives of most business and labor groups maintained that a substantial increase in the state’s 9-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax would have to be the major source of the new revenue.
Deukmejian and administrators in the state Department of Transportation were only lukewarm to a gasoline tax hike and proposed consideration of other revenue sources, including a general obligation bond issue.
The most serious disagreement however, was over voter approval of a gasoline tax increase. Deukmejian said he would not stand in the way of an increase as long as it was submitted to the electorate for approval. Legislative leaders insisted that they would be shirking their responsibility to resolve state problems if they left the final decision to the voters.
Business and labor leaders, meanwhile, generally sided with legislative leaders, arguingthat any substantial gasoline tax increase proposal was likely to be defeated by the voters.They cited a poll commissioned by Californians for Better Transportation, a nonprofit organization composed of business, labor and government groups involved in transportation. The poll found that a majority of voters would oppose any tax increase above 3 cents a gallon.
“Everybody was asking when are we going to get to these (gasoline tax) issues,” Jack Maltester, president of Californians for Better Transportation, said after Tuesday’s meeting.
He said Deukmejian promised the next summit in the week of March 27 would focus on the revenue issues. The governor left Tuesday’s meeting without talking to reporters.
In the Legislature, several proposals for increasing the tax have already been introduced. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Katz have authored legislation that would hike the tax 5 cents initially and then increase it every two years for the next decade. The increases would be tied to inflation.
The Senate proposal by Roberti and Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) would raise the tax 10 cents.
Leaders in both legislative houses acknowledge that a constitutional amendment modifying the state spending limit would have to be passed before any gasoline tax increase could become effective. The spending limit, called the Gann amendment after its author, Paul Gann, was approved by voters in 1979.
“There are three big roadblocks out there: Gann, source of revenue, and how it is enacted. They are still out there. They are controversial. And they are not resolved,” Katz said.