Democrats should find room in the car for Republicans

Donner Pass Road in downtown Truckee is congested in January.
Donner Pass Road in downtown Truckee is congested in January. lsterling@sacbee.com

With super-majorities in both houses, Democrats don’t need a single Republican vote to approve gasoline tax and vehicle fees increases to pay for much-needed road maintenance and other transportation needs.

Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León have set an April 6 deadline to vote on a $6.8 billion a year transportation package. They have the numbers to pass tax and fee hikes without Republican support. But potholes break axles without regard to party. Democrats shouldn’t act alone.

On behalf of Assembly Republicans, Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, a freshman who is vice-chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee, introduced a $5.6 billion transportation plan, with an additional $2.2 billion in one-time funding

Although it has flaws, Assembly Bill 496 contains ideas worth consideration. The bill pledges at least 30 percent of the revenue toward adding lanes, an idea heartening to gridlocked commuters. It would establish an inspector general for CalTrans, limit environmental review for certain road projects, and increase reliance on private companies to carry out the work.

Unlike the Democrats’ proposal, Fong’s bill would leave taxes at their current level, promising to provide $5.6 billion a year primarily by earmarking existing sales taxes levied on new and used car sales to roads.

We see a basic problem: Although California’s general fund sits at about $125 billion, diverting $5.6 billion for roads would deny money to other general fund programs, including public schools, universities, parks, prisons and health care for poor people. And in economic downturns, legislators would raid funds for road projects. In hard times, health care and education always will trump road repair, properly so.

In this state so dominated by Democrats, a freshman Republican from Bakersfield might seem easy to ignore. But Fong worked for a decade for U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. That connection ought to make Democrats take notice. In Republican-controlled Washington, McCarthy will have a say over federal money for roads and other infrastructure.

Fong and the Assembly Republicans have made an opening offer. Democrats could reject it out of hand. But common ground is the wiser course.