Back-Seat Driver

Trump road plan may help Democrats defend controversial California gas tax hike

President Donald Trump may have offered unlikely encouragement to California voters last week not to overturn the state’s controversial gas tax hike that Democrats pushed through last year.

The Trump administration’s long-awaited plan to rebuild American infrastructure, released last Monday, turned the federal grant process on its ear and launched a renewed gas tax debate in California.

The feds in the past often chipped in half or more of the money needed to build major projects like freeways. Instead, this plan puts the onus on states and local governments to contribute about 80 percent of revenues for major projects, and do it by coming up with new revenue sources.

California’s gas tax hike and vehicle license fee, known as Senate Bill 1 or the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017, appears to be that type of new revenue.

Republicans say the new tax is wasteful and unnecessary. They are seeking to have it overturned on the November ballot.

But tax supporters, including SB1 author Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, say the new SB1 funds may now be more valuable for the state than ever.

“The importance of SB1 becomes more significant today because it can provide California with a much-needed source for the meager federal matching grants that are left on the table,” Beall said.

Other gas tax supporters took aim last week at House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, for supporting the Trump proposal but opposing the state’s gas tax hike. McCarthy has donated money toward the “Stop The Gas Tax” petition drive to repeal SB1.

“The irony of this is that some of the same people like Kevin McCarthy who are given responsibility of trying to move this through Congress are (also) promoting the repeal of SB 1 funding,” said Roger Dickinson, head of Transportation California, a group of business, labor and local governments. “We’re saying, ‘Don’t go backwards.’ That would be disastrous.”

Much of California’s new SB 1 funds are designated for basic maintenance, meaning they probably can’t be used as leverage to get more federal funds. But the SB 1 law does allocate $5.5 billion, or 10 percent of its total revenues, to major freeway improvements for faster freight movement and to unclog commute corridors, projects the Trump plan could help pay for. Proponents say there may be billions more dollars in SB 1 that can be leveraged.

Democrats signaled their expectations of that last year in the SB 1 language: “It is the intent of the Legislature (to) leverage funding provided by this act ... in order to obtain matching funds from federal and other sources.”

McCarthy’s office did not respond last week to requests for comment about the potential intersection of SB1 and the Trump infrastructure plan.

But a repeal effort leader, Carl DeMaio of San Diego-based Reform California, dismissed the idea that California would lose out on federal funds if voters kill SB 1. He said his group intends – after the November vote – to get government reforms that will free up more gas pump tax money for road improvements, which will qualify California for federal funds.

And, he took his own shot at state Democrats. “These politicians actually don’t like roads,” he said. “They are so fixated on climate change, they want to get everyone into transit and onto bikes.”

DeMaio said he is confident his coalition will get more than the 585,407 signatures he says are needed by the May deadline to qualify for the November ballot.

A group called the Coalition to Protect Local Transportation Improvements formed last week to campaign to oppose the anti-tax group, and Gov. Jerry Brown, in his State of the State address, vowed to be active in fighting the repeal effort.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak