Viewpoints

California voters have specific ideas on where to spend gas tax money

The crumbling Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur stranded residents in the area and closed part of iconic Highway 1 this spring.
The crumbling Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur stranded residents in the area and closed part of iconic Highway 1 this spring. Monterey Herald

The best piece of journalism that you probably didn’t see last week comes courtesy of PolitiFact California, which addressed the question: “Is Jerry Brown ‘diverting’ 30 percent of California’s new gas tax money?”

It wasn’t so much PolitiFact’s conclusion that stood out – it took exception to Republican state Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez’s claim that the state’s planned infrastructure outlay isn’t as advertised – as it was the detailed explanation of how the money’s allocated.

In this era of thinning newsprint and downsized newsrooms, one’s not accustomed to that kind of fine-toothed analysis. In a better California, someone with ample resources changes their focus from vanity pursuits to the pursuit of more accountable government (Tom Steyer, are you listening?).

A word of caution for lawmakers who might want to put their hand in the cookie jar that is the billions in transportation revenue soon to come Sacramento’s way: Voters have specific ideas as to where their tax dollars should go.

That’s the finding of a Hoover Institution Golden State Poll, released this week, which asked voters how they’d like to see their tax dollars paired with infrastructure repairs.

The winners, from among a dozen choices: better roads and freeways; repair and maintenance of dams and reservoirs; bridge repair; building new water storage and transportation. All received majority support that crossed economic lines.

The least popular concepts: electric vehicle charging stations and port facility modernization.

Another way to translate this, with apologies to the fabled Assembly Speaker’s Jess Unruh observation about money: rebar, asphalt and concrete are the mother’s milk of infrastructure; snazzier New Economy applications, not so much.

Two other findings from the Hoover survey worth noting: Californians financially have mixed emotions; their feelings toward President Donald Trump couldn’t be clearer.

Hoover’s survey asked Californians if Trump’s presidency will end in success or failure (this was before the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the hiring of Robert Mueller to investigate Russian ties to the 2016 election): only 35 percent of Californians believe his presidency will be successful; 54 percent anticipate failure.

The numbers worsened when voters were asked their confidence in Trump’s ability to improve California’s economy: only 29 percent were confident; 60 percent felt “uneasy.”

The conclusion: The Golden State just isn’t into Trump. In other breaking news, there will be a nice sunset off the coast tonight.

Unfortunately, the picture isn’t as clear when looking at Californians and their monetary positions. Three-fourths of survey respondents believe they’re the same or better off financially versus a year ago; 81 percent believe their finances will be the same or better six months from now.

But when asked to compare their finances to their parents when they were at the same age, only 57 percent said equal or better while 34 percent said they were worse off than their parents were.

Interestingly enough, it’s not millennial voters at the forefront of gloom and doom. Only 26 percent of respondents aged 18-29 said they were worse off than their parents at a respective age, compared to 34 percent of respondents aged 30-44, 40 percent of respondents aged 45-64 and 32 percent of 65-and older respondents.

The only age group that wasn’t net-positive about its generational good fortune: respondents in the 45-64 range (38 percent better off, 40 percent worse off).

Now, an ethnic twist: In looking at what the future holds, there was a stark difference between Anglo and Hispanic respondents. Only 20 percent of white Californians said they expected the next generation to do better than their parents; 46 percent said they expected them to do worse. Among Hispanics, the view was more positive than negative, 35 percent to 32 percent.

One last finding that’s counter-current to the Sacramento of present: Only 12 percent of Californians believe government is best suited to generating jobs and growth, versus 43 percent who chose the businesses and 33 percent who opted for consumers.

Asked how government should encourage economic growth, 47 percent said cut taxes and business regulations; 41 percent went with spending on programs and infrastructure.

Government restraint? For all we’re about to spend on infrastructure, it’s one road California lawmakers won’t take.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be contacted at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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