Although the media are paying a lot of attention to the possibility of tax hikes for transportation, the consensus among political insiders is that there is very little traction for a deal involving how we address the huge problem of California’s deteriorating roads and highways.
There are obvious reasons for this, and one reason that isn’t so obvious.
We should first note that the Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature – and Gov. Jerry Brown himself – are sensitive to the complaints of California drivers that our roads are in terrible shape. Lengthy commutes and potholes the size of Rhode Island have citizens up in arms. If anything should attract a bipartisan response, this should be it.
But Republicans and Democrats are millions of vehicle miles apart on any solution. Why?
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First, Republicans have a natural aversion to tax hikes. California already has the highest income tax and state sales tax rates in America, and its gas tax is fourth highest. They rightfully ask: Why should we further burden California’s struggling middle class?
Second, we are told we have a budget surplus of at least $6 billion. Why, then, should we not do what Brown’s father, Pat Brown, did and dedicate existing general fund revenue for road construction and maintenance? Third, California’s level of waste, fraud and abuse when it comes to transportation spending is as legendary as it is shameful. Fourth, California is not even dedicating earmarked transportation dollars for transportation. Until that changes, Republicans will be in no mood for tax hikes.
But underneath the surface of this impasse is another reason Republicans and Democrats aren’t even having serious discussions: Democrats don’t keep their promises. For Republican legislators who were around in 2009 and 2010, the failure of Democrats to fulfill a major promise on a spending limit measure still burns fresh in their memories.
Here’s what happened: In 2009, Republicans and Democrats agreed to balance the state budget, with Republicans supporting significant increases to the state’s income, sales and car taxes, and Democrats putting before voters in June 2012 an initiative limiting state spending increases and increasing the state’s rainy-day fund.
But on the last day of the session, in an 11th-hour “gut and amend” maneuver, Democrats passed a union-backed bill to delay the initiative until November 2014. Instead, that spending-limit proposal never made it on the ballot. Ever.
So there you have it. Even if Democrats agree to dedicate transportation dollars to transportation, agree to a long-needed overhaul of the California Department of Transportation and agree to reforms in environmental regulations that place insurmountable hurdles to any significant transportation project, that agreement would be essentially worthless.
Republicans are too smart to agree to tax hikes that can’t be repealed in exchange for needed reforms in transportation policy that will be repealed or altered within months of enactment. In the words of The Who: “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.