As Spending Plans Go, This One Will Put Us on the Road to Ruin : Prop. 111: Voters may think it will ease gridlock, but it's just a way around the Gann limit.

Russell Burkett is executive director of Orange County Tomorrow, a nonpartisian public - interest organization.

Proponents call Proposition 111 the Traffic Congestion Relief and Spending Limitation Act of 1990 and the "road to the future." But experts on government spending and tax policy call it the "road to ruin."

Proposition 111 is not a blueprint to attack the state's traffic mess. It's a blueprint to institutionalize pressure from the growth and development lobbies and blow the top off the Gann spending limit.

Voters are being asked to double the current gas tax of 9 cents a gallon and hike the commercial weight fees 55%. But they aren't being told where their transportation money already is going. There is nothing in the ballot argument that tells them the state is using nearly 15% in expected revenues from auto sales taxes, highway user fees and motor vehicle license fees to balance its $50-billion-plus budget. If the Legislature made a serious effort to control its spending, this money would be going into more road projects, not creative bookkeeping.

Sure, the proponents of Proposition 111 make a big deal by pointing out that the gasoline tax is one of the lowest in the nation. But consider the fact that California, through its giant auto licensing fee schedule, has one of the highest vehicle ownership costs in the nation. Now couple that with the fact that we rank eighth in the nation in total tax collection and ninth in total per capita spending.

Clearly, California' transportation crisis is not the fault of the taxpayers for not paying enough taxes. As Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) says, it's the fault of a distorted set of priorities that has made California one of the biggest-spending states but among the poorest in financing its roads. According to the California Taxpayers Assn., we are on the bottom in per-capita spending for highways. Raising the gas tax alone will not cure the Legislature's indifference to highway building.

But let's not lose sight of the real story behind Proposition 111. Sacramento has been looking for a way around the Gann spending limit for a decade. Changing the formula, as Proposition 111 would do, is both unnecessary and unwise. Tinkering with the multiplier factor will speed up the spending speedometer fast enough. But add to that new definitions for excess revenue, appropriations subject to limitation or exemptions on all capital outlay projects, and you have the combined elements for explosive growth in debt and unlimited spending.

Within a couple of years, California would be rocked into the unheralded spot of No. 1 nationwide in spending. Or as one famous politician once said, "now you're talking about some real money." How much? Exemptions for capital outlays (as defined by the Legislature) could include all of the following: bridges, dams, highways, transit projects, state buildings, schools, libraries, riverways and communications. You name it and they can claim it. Exemptions from the spending limit are incalculable, but some budget experts have taken a guess at more than $225 billion.

The promoters of Proposition 111 surely got it right: "Proposition 111: It's more than a gas-tax increase." It's so much more that state legislators haven't figured out just how big this loophole really is. But they will. If you believe that the burden of government need not grow larger each year, then you want to vote "no" on Proposition 111.

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