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Gov. Brown still struggling for GOP support on funding for road repairs

Gov. Brown still struggling for GOP support on funding for road repairs
Democrats and Republicans alike want to fix California's dilapidated streets, highways and bridges, but there’s not enough support for the higher taxes that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to pay for it. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

A little more than a year ago, Gov. Jerry Brown was touting an outbreak of bipartisanship in the Capitol. Lawmakers from both parties backed crucial deals on water and state finances — "a high point in our work together," the governor said.

That spirit has been absent as Brown has struggled to find a deal on funding for much-needed road repairs across the state. Democrats and Republicans alike want to fix California's dilapidated streets, highways and bridges, but there's not enough support for the higher taxes the governor wants to pay for it.

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"There's a lot of political rust that has to be chipped away," said Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), co-chair of a committee working on the issue.

Common ground appeared elusive Friday when lawmakers held a hearing in hopes of getting negotiations back on track, part of a special session that has stretched into the Legislature's fall recess.

Brian Kelly, a top administration transportation official, presented the same plan at the hearing that Brown proposed last month: $3.6 billion in annual funding, mostly from a new fee on drivers and higher taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.

Republicans seemed no more interested in supporting the idea than they were before.

"It needs to be a bipartisan approach," Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) said. "What you presented is not necessarily a bipartisan approach."

Taxes and fees can't be raised by the Legislature without Republican support because such measures require a two-thirds vote. But the GOP's unified opposition to more taxes has been a point of pride for a party that rarely has enough muscle to make its mark in Sacramento.

Administration officials estimate that $59 billion is needed for state roads, and local officials say an additional $78 billion is required for cities and counties. The longer it takes to reach a deal, the bigger the price tag will be.

"We don't have any time to waste," Beall said.

Over the summer, Brown called a special session on roads to focus lawmakers' attention on the issue. In August, when pressed on how he planned to forge a funding deal, he cited his successful work on a $7.5-billion water bond last year.

"This particular approach of mine" — allowing potential solutions to bubble up from the Legislature before helping to get an agreement across the finish line — "has worked in the past," the governor said.

One week before the regular legislative session ended in September, Kelly shared an outline of Brown's proposal with Republican legislative leaders.

"We got a one-page document at the end of session that really kind of monkeyed-up everything that we were doing," Cannella said.

The situation was further complicated by leadership changes in the Legislature. Nothing came to fruition.

Nevertheless, Brown struck an optimistic tone last month.

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"The roads are going to get fixed. People are going to spend the money," he told reporters. "Whether it takes a week, a month, a year or two, ultimately the powers that be … [are] going to up the pressure. It's just a question of when."

Some fear the window of opportunity is closing.

If there's no vote before January, said DeAnn Baker, legislative director for the California State Assn. of Counties, "we're into an election year, and that could make it all the more difficult."

Brown could wind up in a circumstance like that of 2011, when he failed to win Republican votes on taxes to patch a budget deficit.

Advocates are thinking about other ways to get the money for roads. One option is having the Legislature ask voters for the higher taxes, rather than pass them outright.

"We should always leave our options open," said Cesar Diaz, legislative and political director at the State Building and Construction Trades Council, a coalition of labor unions.

Putting the issue to voters could win over lawmakers such as Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), who promised while campaigning for office that any tax hikes would need voter approval.

Another idea is a bond measure for other expenses that could free up money for road repairs.

"It's going to take some creativity," said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable.

A campaign to get voters' approval could be expensive. And a number of interest groups are already lining up support for other tax measures next year; a ballot crowded with propositions could turn off voters.

Kelly said the Brown administration isn't ready to start talking about a ballot measure, in any case.

"Not yet," he said. "We still want to see if we can work something through with the Legislature."

Twitter: @chrismegerian

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