Special legislative sessions aren’t bound by the time limits of regular sessions, so one on financing road maintenance could run another 15-plus months.
It may take that long to iron out the issue’s many political wrinkles – if they can be.
The biggest, but by no means only, one is that imposing new gasoline or other taxes would require votes from at least a few Republican legislators, and that’s almost impossible.
The last time it happened was in 2009, when six GOP legislators voted to raise taxes temporarily to close a big budget deficit, supporting then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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They were excoriated by their own party leaders and right-wing radio talkers, and even though two received John F. Kennedy Library “Profile in Courage” awards, the political careers of all six were sidetracked. Just one now holds even a minor local office.
On Monday, an impressive coalition of local government, union and business groups unveiled a drive to persuade the Legislature to find some mixture of revenues that would pump an additional $6 billion a year into state and local roadway maintenance.
“The problem is you can’t kick the can down the road,” said Matt Cate of the California State Association of Counties, “because it’s going to land in a pothole.”
There’s no disagreement on the need to do something about the state’s rapidly deteriorating roadways, generally regarded as the nation’s second worst.
Gov. Jerry Brown is on board, at least conceptually. He called the special session, citing a $59 billion backlog in state highway maintenance and pleading with lawmakers to act. Local governments say they have a $78 billion backlog.
Democratic legislators are willing to enact a package of revenue increases, most likely an amalgam of gas and diesel taxes and additional vehicle registration and driver’s license fees.
But Republicans are not willing – yet. They’ve proposed, fundamentally, using surplus general revenues, plus some of the “cap-and-trade” fees on fuel and some belt-tightening in the Department of Transportation to finance needed maintenance.
Enjoying some rare leverage, thanks to the two-thirds vote requirement for taxes, Republicans’ laundry list includes laying off excess Caltrans staff and cutting environmental red tape for transportation projects.
Even if a few Republicans were willing to vote for temporary transportation taxes, their ancillary demands, including general fund diversions, might generate enough opposition among unions, environmentalists and liberal Democrats to doom the deal.
At this point, though, getting Republicans to vote for any new taxes under any circumstances is problematic.
Within minutes of Monday’s announcement by the Fix Our Roads coalition, Jon Coupal, who heads the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, was warning GOP legislators not to heed its pleas.
“CA local gov’ts, labor & some biz groups support higher trans. taxes,” Coupal tweeted. “Felony foolish. No Reep legislator should screw the working class.”