Many of the business and legislative leaders who have attended Gov. George Deukmejian’s two transportation summits say they are resigned to the likelihood that a gasoline tax increase may not be passed while he is governor.
These leaders are convinced that California voters would not be willing to approve a gasoline tax hike big enough to address the state’s transportation problems. They had hoped to use the summit talks to break down Deukmejian’s longstanding opposition to enacting such an increase without seeking voter approval.
Deukmejian’s refusal to budge on the issue, reaffirmed at a press conference Thursday, has only confirmed fears that an agreement on a comprehensive proposal for easing California’s transportation congestion may be out of reach until a new governor takes office.
“I guess the feeling is really if we can’t get something now, just sit and wait and see what happens in 1991 when you have a new governor,” said Jack Maltester, president of Californians for Better Transportation, who said he sees the chances for agreement during the current Administration as 50-50 at best.
The summit’s participants had anticipated that the talks would help forge a consensus on a long-range plan for grappling with the state’s transportation needs. When the first meeting produced an agreement that $20 billion more would have to be pumped into the transportation system in the next decade, they said it became clear that the major source of that revenue would have to be a gas tax increase of about 10 cents a gallon.
With the governor remaining adamant that any increase should be submitted to the voters, many say their hopes for a final agreement on a transportation plan have begun to wane.
Citing various public opinion polls, the participants took a near unanimous position that a tax of that magnitude would never be approved by the voters.
“I don’t know of anybody who is urging that course of action (voter approval of a gas tax increase) except the governor,” said Ed Gerber, executive director of the California Transit Assn. “We don’t think that going to the people on a 10-cent gas tax increase is politically doable, and it would be tragic to take it to the people and lose.”
“Frustration is probably the best way to describe my feeling at this stage in the game,” said Tom Schmacher, executive vice president of the California Trucking Assn.
“The kind of money that we’re talking about, if you go to the people they will vote emotionally--not informatively. The issue is so complex that it is extremely difficult for the public to make an informed vote on it. Right now is the time that courage and leadership are needed,” he said.
Christine Reed, a Santa Monica city councilwoman who also chairs the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, said the apparent breakdown of negotiations on a statewide solution to the transportation problem is prompting her to prepare to push for an additional half-cent sales tax for Los Angeles County. She said the tax would be earmarked for streets and roads.
“I regret deeply that the governor feels as strongly as he does on this,” she said.
“I mean, he is a very nice man and he is very sincere and he cares very much about all these things, but I think he is off-base on this one issue.
“I think the (transportation) infrastructure of the state is going to hell in a hand basket, and we are not able to make the investment to stay even, let alone prepare for the population growth that is facing us in the next 20 to 25 years,” Reed said.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), the author of a comprehensive transportation bill that calls for a 5-cent gas tax increase without voter approval, said he, too, feared a deadlock in the talks and blamed the business leaders in part for failing to put more pressure on the governor in the closed-door summit meetings.
“The business community talks very bravely in private, but when it comes to the governor they pretty much sit on their hands,” he said.
“They better be prepared to tell the governor this is important. They’ve got to get off the dime, stop being wimpish. I don’t think the governor fully understands the congestion nightmare (that) people in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Orange County are facing.”
Katz said his worse fear is that Deukmejian will push for a “Band-aid,” like a 2- or 3-cent gas tax, and “let the long-range problem go.” Polls commissioned by business groups show that a 2- or 3-cent tax would probably win voter approval.
‘Never the Intent’
Deukmejian seemed prepared on Thursday for the possibility that the summit conferees would not be able to agree on a plan at their final meeting later this month, when they are to discuss how to raise the revenue for the $20-billion program.
“At no time in this process did we ever start out with the idea that we’re going to get all 30 groups signed off and agreed on everything,” he said. “That was never the intent. The intent had been from the beginning simply to give to us the opportunity to receive this kind of input, to get everybody talking together.”
Snapped Katz: “We don’t need, in my opinion, five hours of meeting with him and 15 hours of staff meetings to get to know each other better.”
Many of the participants acknowledged, however, that the governor had assuaged their concerns on one issue--modification of the state spending limit. The spending limit, often referred to as the Gann amendment after its author, anti-tax crusader Paul Gann, ties government spending to an inflation index and population growth.
Without a change, this limit would prevent the state from spending any additional revenue raised for transportation.
And because the Gann limit initially was approved by voters in 1979, voter approval also is required to soften it.
In his news conference Thursday, Deukmejian pledged that he will not resist loosening the Gann limit to provide money for transportation just so he can gain leverage in the Legislature on other budget issues, such as welfare and education.
“If a specific exemption in the Gann limit is needed to implement a consensus approach on transportation funding, that exemption would be considered independent of the budget reform discussion,” he vowed for the first time.