The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown have passed a new state budget, and that’s that, right?
Not on your sweet bippy, to channel comedian Dick Martin.
The Capitol’s politicians left three major budgetary issues undone – highway maintenance, financing for the Medi-Cal program, and spending $2-plus billion in “cap-and-trade” fees.
The latter two are fairly straightforward bits of political dealmaking. The issue of highway repairs, however, the subject of a special legislative session called by Brown, is anything but simple.
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There is broad agreement on the problem. California’s highway system, once the envy of the world, has fallen into disrepair, with spending on maintenance only a third of what’s needed.
But there’s no agreement on how to raise an additional $6 billion a year for the state’s 10-year restoration plan, the equivalent of hiking gas taxes by 40 cents per gallon.
The Democrats’ hopes are embraced in Senate Bill 16, carried by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, which would raise about $3.5 billion a year by hiking gasoline taxes 10 cents a gallon and increasing vehicle registration and license fees.
It’s stuck in the Senate because it needs a two-thirds vote and thus at least one Republican senator to pass, plus another two-thirds vote in the Assembly. GOP legislators aren’t buying it, at least not yet.
A plan unveiled by the Assembly’s Republicans would capture money now being collected from motorists in cap-and-trade fees, recapture $1 billion in truck weight fees now servicing 2006-vintage transportation bonds, take another $1 billion from the state general fund, and lay off more than 3,000 Caltrans employees identified by the Legislature’s budget analyst as redundant.
While Republicans oppose new taxes, Democrats, including Brown, are equally adamant about not tapping the general fund, so, superficially, it’s a stalemate.
Nor is money the only issue. State employee unions would oppose the layoffs and expansion of “public-private partnerships” for highway work sought by the GOP, while environmental groups would oppose giving highway work relief from the California Environmental Quality Act. And local governments demand a share of any new road revenues.
A compromise is not impossible. At least a few Republicans might support temporary user tax and fee increases, and Democrats might be willing to streamline project handling to get that support.
But it’s uncertain how far either party’s members could stray from orthodoxy to find the magic recipe that could generate perhaps $4 billion to $5 billion year in new revenues, plus other provisions – such as a guarantee that new highway money wouldn’t be diverted elsewhere – that passage would require.
The only certainty is that if they cannot agree, California’s disgracefully shabby roads and highways will continue to deteriorate. Even if they do agree on a 10-year maintenance program, it would be just a stopgap while the state seeks a much-needed, long-term overhaul of transportation financing that moves away from the outmoded gas tax.