Once again, California lawmakers are proving themselves unable to carry out that most basic function – filling potholes.
A special session called by Gov. Jerry Brown to focus on raising billions to fund road maintenance will end a week from Wednesday with a whimper. There are plenty of excuses.
Democrats, who control the Legislature, haven’t had the two-thirds majority needed to approve new gasoline taxes. So they can blame Republicans.
Republicans insist the California Department of Transportation is bloated and must become more efficient, and they seek relaxation of labor and environmental regulations. So they can blame Democrats.
Legislators, who listen to oil industry lobbyists, contend the industry cannot comply with the stringent so-called low-carbon fuel standard. Before they vote to approve a gas tax hike, they claim, Brown and his California Air Resources Board should ease the standard.
That won’t happen. Brown, perhaps the nation’s top elected leader fighting climate change, is not about to capitulate to the oil industry.
In the coming year, Democrats who control California governance will have fewer excuses not to act. They’ll hold a two-thirds majority in the Assembly and possibly in the state Senate, depending on votes from Nov. 8 still being tallied in one Southern California district.
The need isn’t going away.
In 2015, Brown said California faced a $59 billion shortfall to adequately maintain existing state highways during the next decade. Local authorities say they need another $78 billion to maintain and rebuild roads and bridges.
Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, proposed legislation that would have generated $4.3 billion a year. Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, pushed similar legislation. A staff analysis of Beall’s bill estimated that motorists who drive 12,000 miles a year would pay an additional $130 a year. We suspect most people would gladly pay a little more if it meant avoiding traffic jams and potholes – emphasis on the word “if.” The money cannot be wasted.
Exactly what the right combination of fees and taxes might be is to be determined. Brown has called for a flat $65-per-year user fee for roads. Some legislators seek to raise the gas tax, although it already is among the nation’s highest. Since electric cars use no gasoline, one alternative would be to charge fees based on vehicle miles traveled, though such a system raises privacy concerns.
One part of the solution would be to raise the vehicle license fee, also known as the car tax, which can be deducted from federal income taxes. Individuals who drive costly cars would pay more, which would be in keeping with Californians’ apparent desire to impose heftier taxes on wealthy people.
Voters in seven counties showed they were willing to tax themselves to pay for transportation. Sacramento and Placer counties apparently were not among them, unfortunately. But local taxes are, by definition, piecemeal. Highways are a shared responsibility.
California’s lawmakers have shown themselves willing and able to pass all manner of bills, including banning plastic bags and establishing lofty goals to combat climate change. All that is important.
But wouldn’t it be grand if Californians could drive from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe or San Francisco in 90 minutes, or if downtown Sacramento workers could get to Orangevale or Roseville in less than an hour at the end of the day? And maybe, just maybe, Caltrans could fill the ruts on Interstate 80 in West Sacramento.