Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California Legislature has one new tax down, one to go

Construction workers spread asphalt on the westbound transition from the Capital City Freeway in June 2014 in Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown wants a flock of new fees and taxes to provide $36 billion over the next 10 years for state and local roadway maintenance and improvements.
Construction workers spread asphalt on the westbound transition from the Capital City Freeway in June 2014 in Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown wants a flock of new fees and taxes to provide $36 billion over the next 10 years for state and local roadway maintenance and improvements. Sacramento Bee file

When Republicans gained a few seats in the Legislature two years ago, they regained their power over tax increases.

Mostly, that has meant the power to block tax increases. However, on Monday, Republicans provided enough votes to pass a multibillion-dollar tax on managed health care organizations that Gov. Jerry Brown sought to continue maximizing federal aid for medical services to the poor.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. He and Democratic legislative leaders had to agree to spend more money on services Republicans supported, such as support for the developmentally disabled, and a laundry list of other items.

To hard-line conservatives, it was a betrayal of the 2014 efforts to bolster GOP ranks.

Blogger Jon Fleischman quickly tweeted a link to column in which he argued, “There is something particularly unseemly about a deal that involves the approval of a (list) of pork barrel spending in order to secure the votes of particular members – ranging from fire mitigation funding of over $100 million for some rural counties, to big bucks for a medical school at UC Merced.”

Just two Republicans, Bob Huff of San Dimas and Anthony Cannella of Ceres, voted for the tax in the Senate, while many GOP members supported it in the Assembly.

“It’s a pretty good deal,” Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, said.

With the multi-bill package’s approval, attention turns to the other tax increase Brown wants – a flock of new fees and taxes to provide $36 billion over the next 10 years for state and local roadway maintenance and improvements.

It, too, would need two-thirds legislative votes, meaning at least a few Republicans would have to support it.

It’s simpler than the medical package but also trickier from a political standpoint because it’s a more direct bite on constituents and involves transportation costs they encounter each day, always a touchy subject.

Although they’ve declined sharply in recent months, gas prices in California are still among the nation’s highest, including top-tier taxes and fees of more than 60 cents a gallon, when cap-and-trade fees on carbon emissions are counted.

Brown wants to boost gas taxes by 8 cents a gallon, adjust them upwardly each year for inflation and impose a new “road improvement charge” of $65 per vehicle, aimed at drivers of electric and hybrid cars that use little or no taxable gas.

There are some indications that a package of new transportation revenues could get at least minimal Republican support if certain conditions are met, such as cracking down on what GOP legislators see as wasteful featherbedding in the Department of Transportation and perhaps more flexibility in engineering and construction contracts.

What Republicans see as reforms, however, public employee unions see as givebacks, and they have huge influence on Democrats.

Negotiations have been underway for months, seeking a political sweet spot for a transportation package, and with the medical tax off the agenda, the pace will pick up.

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