California motorists will start paying higher gas and diesel taxes on Nov. 1 under legislation signed Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown to provide $5.2 billion annually for road and bridge repairs and expanded mass transit in the state.
The plan, which also includes new fees when vehicles are registered, has sparked a significant backlash. Opponents have launched a recall campaign against one senator and are talking about a possible initiative to roll back and control the taxes and fees. Other lawmakers said they received harassing phone calls about their votes on the bill.
But state officials hope the sight of construction crews on long-neglected highways and roads will compensate for pain in the pocketbook.
"Safe and smooth roads make California a better place to live and strengthen our economy," Brown said. "This legislation will put thousands of people to work."
Early projects that motorists are likely to see include buttressing the weakened bridges along Interstates 5, 710 and 210, as well as smoothing the pot-hole-filled pavement along the 14 Freeway in Santa Clarita, the 170 Freeway in the San Fernando Valley and along Interstate 605 between Interstates 10 and 210, transportation officials said.
Most Republicans opposed the bill, saying that taxpayers are already paying plenty for road repairs, money is available from the general fund and Brown should scrap his multibillion-dollar bullet train project to pay for road repairs. They also noted that the bill passed with no votes to spare after Brown and legislative leaders agreed to provide nearly $1 billion in side deals to the districts of legislators who were on the fence but agreed later to vote for the measure.
"Gov. Brown and Capitol Democrats just gave us the largest gas tax increase in state history — a deal so bad they needed $1 billion in pork to buy the votes to pass it. California deserves better," Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley said in a statement released Friday.
The bill signed Friday will raise the base excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon, bringing it to 30 cents, starting Nov. 1. Another variable excise tax will be set at 17 cents.
The excise tax on diesel fuel will jump 20 cents per gallon to 36 cents per gallon on Nov. 1. The sales tax on diesel will go up 4 percentage points from the current 5.75% to 9.75%.
Electric car owners will pay a $100 annual fee in lieu of gas taxes, starting in 2020. The delay was meant to give the burgeoning electric car industry time to establish a stronger footing in the state.
The measure also creates an annual vehicle fee ranging from $25 for cars valued at under $5,000 to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more. That fee kicks in Jan. 1, 2018.
Brown said the taxes and fees will cost most Californians less than $10 per month.
Still, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) acknowledged that voting for tax increases was difficult for many lawmakers.
"Supporting SB 1 required a combination of common sense, political courage, and concern for the Californians who drive on our roads and bridges," Rendon said in a statement Friday.
State officials say $34 billion of the first $52 billion raised will go toward repairing roads, bridges, highways and culverts, with most of the money split 50-50 between state and local projects.
In addition, $7 billion over the first 10 years will go to mass transit projects. Other money will pay for new bike and pedestrian paths, fund improvements to trade corridors, including the roads serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and go toward reducing congestion on the most clogged commuter routes.
The new taxes and fees will raise $52 billion during the first 10 years, and more in the future, to chip away at a backlog of California road and bridge repairs estimated at $130 billion.
Brown and legislative leaders campaigned around the state, including in the districts of holdout lawmakers, arguing an increase is needed because it has been 23 years since the last gas tax hike.
As the only Republican in the Senate who voted for Senate Bill 1, Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres has borne the brunt of negative reaction after he said someone distributed his home address and cellphone number to other opponents.
Cannella said that as an elected official, he stands behind his legislative votes and expects to hear both positive and negative feedback.
"I have been subject to outrageous claims about my reasoning for voting for SB 1, even though I acted in the interests of my constituents and the 12th Senate District," the senator said. "It is unacceptable that my wife and children have been subject to threats and harassment as a result."
Freshman Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) has been served with a notice that he is the target of a recall campaign by a group of conservatives from Orange and San Diego counties led by radio personality Carl DeMaio. They must collect 63,592 signatures of registered voters in 160 days to qualify the measure for the ballot.
Newman, whose election in November helped give Democrats a two-thirds majority in the Senate, said he is prepared to campaign to defend his action.
"My vote in this particular case was based on a very clear consensus among a wide range of different groups — many of whom would normally be considered Republican-leaning on most issues — that California's transportation infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, and that funding the work on a pay-as-you-go basis through a range of non-general fund fees and taxes is the fiscally responsible way to go," Newman said.
He also noted that he authored a companion bill to put a measure on the ballot requiring all of the money raised by the tax and fee increases to be spent on transportation.
That, he said, "seems to have escaped the notice of a bunch of the folks who are now using my vote as their pretext for trying to steal back my seat through this recall scheme."
Meanwhile, polling and research are planned to determine the feasibility of a possible initiative that would set the gas tax at a lower level and require all of its revenue to be spent on road repairs and expansion, according to Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., a group founded by the proponents of the tax-limitation measure Proposition 13.
"We're taking a very serious look at it," Coupal said. "There's been a lot of blowback on this and it's not just from Republicans and conservatives."
Sen. Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado Hills) was among those who said they will look for a way to repeal the gas tax increase.
"I am going to fight to overturn this unfair and regressive tax and get some justice for the California families and businesses that are getting nickeled and dimed to death," Gaines said.
12:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on the plan's cost for Californians from Gov. Jerry Brown, and with a quote from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.