Capitol Alert

Vote to increase California gas tax came to chaotic end

For 13 minutes late Thursday night, it appeared as though Gov. Jerry Brown’s transportation funding deal might fall apart – and that came after a legislator was carted back from the hospital to cast a crucial vote for the politically perilous tax increase.

Tension among Democrats spiked when Assemblyman Rudy Salas of Bakersfield bucked his caucus to vote against the plan.

With no Republicans in favor, all the remaining Assembly Democrats would needed to pass the bill – which required two-thirds support because it raises fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for road repairs and other programs – and three of them were suddenly wavering in light of Salas’ decision.

The roll stayed open at 51 votes and the cajoling began. Democrats surrounded the holdouts, convincing them to vote for the bill without Salas, as Brown’s top aide, Nancy McFadden, arrived on the floor. Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, stormed over to Salas’ desk, jabbed a finger in his face and berated him for voting no while his colleagues face tougher re-election fights than his.

“They have way worse districts than you,” she yelled.

After Assemblymen Al Muratsuchi of Manhattan Beach, Tim Grayson of Concord and Jim Cooper of Elk Grove finally locked in their votes at 10:35 p.m., a cheer of elation and relief erupted from lawmakers and staff in the chamber. But there could be political fallout at the Capitol for Salas when the Legislature returns from its spring recess later this month.

Members often lose committee chairmanships, get moved to cramped offices or face other punishments for crossing leadership. Former Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, was famously booted to an office across the street after abstaining on a budget vote in 2008. In 2011, then-Assemblyman Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge accused the speaker of slashing his office funding for being the lone Democratic holdout on the budget.

Salas was not available on Friday to discuss his vote. In a statement, he said, “The families I represent drive too far to jobs that pay too little.”

Brown and legislative leaders had already spent days leading up to the transportation vote maneuvering support for the proposal. Last-minute deals with hundreds of millions of dollar for local projects emerged to secure several key lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, D-Riverside, who upset a Republican incumbent in a swing district last fall.

Hours before the vote, Salas said he still had not made up his mind on the bill. He had been in discussions with the governor, he said, but would not disclose whether he was offered any sweeteners of his own.

Session was delayed late into the evening as the Assembly waited, first for the Senate to approve the fuel tax increase and then for the return of Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who was taken to the emergency room earlier in the day for an undisclosed illness.

The Fullerton Democrat, who lost her targeted Orange County seat in 2014 and regained it in November, was another member that supporters of the transportation deal fretted about bringing on board. But when it came time to vote, Quirk-Silva was a yes, as was Cervantes, who had been locked in her office that afternoon negotiating the money for her district.

Salas’ dissent caught many lawmakers off-guard. Following a celebratory press conference with Brown, Gonzalez Fletcher was still upset that things didn’t “go according to plan.”

“He has a responsibility to the rest of the caucus, and especially those women who are in more precarious districts than his, to be honest about where he stands,” she said.

The fuel tax increase could be a significant political hurdle for many Assembly Democrats in more conservative districts during the 2018 election, and Republicans are already using it against them. Salas was re-elected in November with 65 percent of the vote, whereas Cervantes won with 54 percent and Quirk-Silva with 53 percent.

Gonzalez Fletcher, who chairs the powerful appropriations committee, would not speculate about what repercussions may await Salas. “That’s not my decision,” she said, adding that she would leave it to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who was unavailable to talk on Friday.

By the afternoon, Salas had shared on Facebook and Twitter “My favorite message I received last night, a quote from one of my idols Mahatma Gandhi,” attaching a photo with this caption: “It’s easy to stand in the crowd but it takes courage to stand alone.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff