There is bipartisan agreement that California needs to fix its deteriorating transportation infrastructure. Too many roads are potholed and crumbling. Too many bridges could collapse in the next big earthquake. Too many Californians are stuck for hours in traffic without the option of a train, bus or bike.
But even though everyone agrees on the need, some people don’t want to pay for it.
The most logical way to fund these critical transportation improvements is the way California, and the federal government, have always done it: through “user fees” imposed on drivers. In California, those include gas taxes and assessments paid by owners on their vehicles. But the taxes haven’t increased with inflation and more fuel-efficient vehicles have reduced the revenue as well.
Last year, state lawmakers finally reached a deal to increase fuel taxes and vehicle fees to pay for the massive $130-billion backlog of transportation maintenance and to start modernizing as well. It was the first gas tax increase in 23 years.
It’s hard to overstate how destructive Proposition 6 would be for California. It would eliminate $5 billion a year from the state budget, wiping out funds that could be used to fill potholes on local streets, smooth highways and stabilize bridges. It would cancel funding for highway and rail projects designed to move cargo more cleanly and efficiently, hurting the state’s vital freight industry. It would slash money for light rail lines and commuter rail service, meaning fewer trains for people trying to get to work.
And for what? Sure, you might save $1.50 every time you fill up your sedan. But you’ll spend a lot more repairing tires, alignment, shocks and other parts caused by driving on potholed and damaged roads. The jobs created by maintaining and building roads and transit will be lost, as will the efficiency gained through better transportation systems. California’s infrastructure — once the envy of the U.S. — will further deteriorate; traffic will continue to increase.
Even worse are the cynical motives behind Proposition 6. GOP leaders — including those who have no interest in California’s potholed roads, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — have poured money into the campaign to repeal the gas tax. Why? They want to boost GOP turnout in November and help preserve Republican congressional seats in districts that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, thereby saving their party's House majority.
Republican leaders from other states are willing to sabotage California for their own political benefit. Never mind that more than half the states in the nation have increased their gas taxes in recent years to do exactly what California wants to do — invest in transportation infrastructure for the good of residents and businesses. This is shameful, and yet another reason to reject Proposition 6.
Here’s what the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown approved: The law increased the gasoline tax by 12 cents a gallon, the diesel excise tax by 20 cents a gallon and the diesel sales tax to 5.75% from 1.75%. The fuel taxes would rise with inflation in future years. It also raised annual vehicle registration fees between $25 and $175, depending on the vehicle's value. And it created a new $100 annual fee, starting in 2020, for zero-emission vehicles, which don't pay gas taxes. The total value to the state of the tax and fee hikes is about $5 billion a year.
Proposition 6 would not only repeal those tax increases, it would require voter approval for future fuel tax or vehicle fee increases. Only one time in the last century have the voters raised the gas tax through a ballot measure — Proposition 111 in 1990. Otherwise, it’s always been the job of the Legislature to adjust fuel taxes and vehicle fees to keep pace with need and inflation.
Proponents of Proposition 6 allege that California lawmakers have “stolen” the gas tax money for non-transportation purposes in the past and that they’ll do it again. That’s not true. Since 1938, Californians have passed constitutional amendments to guarantee that certain fuel taxes and vehicle license fees are reserved for transportation projects. In June, voters approved another one — Proposition 69 — ensuring that revenue from the diesel tax increase and the new transportation improvement fee are also dedicated exclusively to transportation spending.
Proponents also allege that just a small fraction of the tax hikes will go to roads. Again, that’s wrong. Two-thirds of the new revenue is dedicated to highway and road repairs, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Some of the tax hikes would also help pay for public transit, which is an integral part of the transportation system.