Last year, legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to increase taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, and to impose new and bigger fees on vehicles, to help build and maintain the state's transportation infrastructure. To win support from tax-wary Republicans, proponents of the legislation (Senate Bill 1) promised that the new money would be used only for transportation.
Proposition 69 would fulfill that promise. Voters should hold lawmakers to their word and pass it.
The measure would require that the new revenue go into special accounts that could be spent exclusively on transportation. This isn't a new concept. Californians have passed constitutional amendments to guarantee that certain fuel taxes and vehicle license fees are reserved for transportation projects. Proposition 69 similarly amends the state Constitution to ensure that revenue generated from the diesel sales tax increase and the new transportation improvement fee in SB 1 are dedicated to transportation spending.
We've been skeptical of ballot-box budgeting and past efforts to earmark state spending because they can distort state priorities and make it harder to pay the state's bills when there is a recession. But we're OK with Proposition 69 for a couple of reasons.
First, Americans have long relied on fuel taxes and vehicle charges as "user fees" to maintain transportation infrastructure. The more dollars that get diverted to other needs, the greater the backlog of road and bridge repairs. And second, efforts to raise these taxes and fees to keep pace with inflation were stymied politically for years, exacerbating the state's infrastructure problems. The promise to put new fuel tax and vehicle fee revenue in a lockbox for transportation was integral to the compromise that allowed SB 1 to reach the two-thirds majority required for tax increases.
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%. It also raised annual vehicle registration fees by up to $175, depending on the vehicle's value. And it created a $100 annual fee, starting in 2020, for zero-emission vehicles, which don't pay gas taxes.
Opponents of Proposition 69 are engaging in a cynical campaign to defeat the measure so they can argue in November — when they hope to have a referendum on the ballot to repeal the fuel tax increases — that lawmakers can't be trusted to spend the money on transportation. That's foolishness. California leaders have wisely decided to invest again in building and maintaining the state's transportation infrastructure. Proposition 69 will help ensure the work gets done.