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California

Drivers need a fix for battered roads, and Republicans should learn from history

Hollywood Freeway opening
Decades ago, when California roads were the national envy, the state could raise its own gasoline taxes on a majority legislative vote. Above, a ceremony marks the opening of the Hollywood Freeway in downtown Los Angeles in 1950.
(Los Angeles Times)

Long for the good old days when California enjoyed the smoothest highways in America? Well, back then, there wasn’t a roadblock on taxes to finance them.

The route to fewer potholes and less frustrating car commutes is more money. It’s pretty simple really, despite Republican political pitches and self-denial.

Republicans are right about one thing: Current money could be spent more wisely. And what a waste that botched bullet train is. Diverting high-speed rail money to road repairs, however, is probably illegal and a non-starter.

Here’s the main problem for highways: Decades ago when California roads were the national envy, the federal government was kicking in barrels of money. And the state could raise its own gasoline taxes on a majority legislative vote.

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Let’s not forget: It was a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who initiated the interstate highway system and raised the gasoline tax to pay for it. Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush also hiked the gas tax.

“The cost to the average motorist will be small, but the benefit to our transportation system will be immense,” Reagan said in signing a nickel-a-gallon increase in 1983.

Today, Washington is gridlocked on highway funding. Attempts to hike the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal tax have hit a dead end. But at least in Congress a tax can be boosted on a majority vote.

In California, voters in 1978 passed Proposition 13, which did much more than cut property taxes. It also decreed that for the Legislature to increase any tax, a two-thirds vote was required.

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Since Prop. 13, the GOP’s main political strategy — and arguably its only successful one — has been to fight taxes.

That didn’t stop Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, however, from being the chief advocate, in 1990, of California’s last state gas tax hike. He responded realistically to deteriorating highways that had been practically ignored by Jerry Brown in his first stint as governor.

The Legislature passed Deukmejian’s gas tax and California voters approved it. There were more pragmatic GOP lawmakers then.

The big mistake Deukmejian and the Legislature made, however, was not establishing future inflation adjustments for the tax. Consequently, today’s total 30-cent state gas tax is worth only about half what it was in 1990.

Another problem for highway funding is that motorists are pumping less gas per vehicle because of increasing fuel efficiency. But those vehicles are still tearing up the pavement. Battery-run cars aren’t using any gas.

Republicans complain that California has the fourth-highest gas tax in the nation but some of the worst roads, causing costly auto repairs and wasted driving time. That’s a simple statement, but there’s no simple answer.

Maybe our vehicles are more fuel-efficient and thus not big tax generators. Our roads do take the most pounding, according to the State Transportation Agency: The average highway mile here gets driven on by 32,000 vehicles a day, compared with 14,000 in Michigan and 5,900 in Texas. Also, California roads are more likely to be multi-lane and more expensive to pave. And they need to be earthquake-ready.

The result, according to the Brown administration, is a $58-billion backlog in state highway repairs on top of a $78-billion funding shortage for local road fixes. There’s an $8-billion annual repair need, the state says, but only $2.3 billion coming in from the gas tax.

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So Brown called a special session of the Legislature to enact a new funding scheme. But the governor hasn’t led by offering his own plan.

“I’m not going to put all my cards on the table,” he told reporters last month. “As a brooding omnipresence, I stand above the fray here.”

Cute. But not really productive in a Capitol where there has been a legislative leadership vacuum. Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) seems secure enough, but Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) has been fighting off a coup threat and the two Republican leaders were just shoved aside.

“It makes it a little unclear who we should be talking to,” says state transportation secretary Brian Kelly, the administration’s chief negotiator.

Two Democratic transportation committee chairmen — Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose and Assemblyman Jim Frazier of Oakley — have been trying to hammer together a deal with Republicans. They apparently aren’t close. The regular legislative session will recess for the year Sept. 11, but the governor’s special session could continue indefinitely.

Basically, Democrats are proposing gas and diesel tax hikes — 12 cents per gallon — plus boosts in vehicle registration fees and a $100 surcharge on electric vehicles. Brown is reluctant to tax battery cars that help his anti-global warming agenda.

Republicans contend there’s enough money available without raising taxes. They always do, regardless of what the tax is for. But they also insist — and Democrats agree — that any new money should be locked up solely for highway repairs.

Republicans want to spend cap-and-trade money — greenhouse-gas pollution fees — for highway repairs. That won’t fly politically and would be legally suspect. But Beall and Kelly both say that cap-and-trade funds could pay for highway-related projects that reduce greenhouse emissions.

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Republicans also insist that environmental regulations be streamlined to speed up highway repairs. Democrats will go along with that.

The big question is whether any Republican will vote for a tax increase no matter how sweet the deal.

They should read up on some successful Republicans from the past: Ike, the Gipper and the Duke.

george.skelton@latimes.com
Twitter: @LATimesSkelton


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