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Taxes to rise but Ceres gets ACE
Cannella casts crucial vote to pass SB1 with its tax increases
gas tax pic
State Senator Anthony Cannella supported the transportation plan after the Governor agreed to support a budget amendment that funds the extension of the Altamont Corridor Express commuter train to Ceres and Merced. - photo by Courier file photo

The California Legislature voted Thursday night to pass Governor Jerry Brown's $52 billion transportation plan, Senate Bill 1, and local Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) served as the pivotal vote in the State Senate for the package, a comprehensive measure that will upgrade highways, local roads and rail throughout the state over the next 10 years.

In exchange for his support for the tax increases, Cannella wrangled a pledge for the state to commit $400 million to his pet project of extending the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) train to Ceres and Merced. The city of Ceres has been contemplating an ACE train station west of Highway 99 near the Whitmore Avenue freeway off-ramp.

The ACE train is often confused with the bullet train, or high-speed rail, but it's not. ACE involves using existing Union Pacific railroad tracks running alongside Highway 99.

Over the next decade, legislation will raise the money to pay for the plan through a number of statewide fees, including a 12-cent gas tax increase and 20-cent diesel tax increase. Vehicle license fees would be raised an average of $38 per vehicle, and drivers would also face a new annual fee to be paid along with their vehicle registration, ranging from $25 to $175 depending on the value of their car.

Electric vehicles would cost their drivers $100 per year beginning in 2020.

The fuel tax hikes of SB 1 will take effect Nov. 1, while the vehicle license fee increase will take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

Proposals which require tax hikes require a "yes" vote from two-thirds of each house to pass. The deal received the bare minimum of votes, with the state Senate voting 27-11 and the state Assembly voting 54-26.

Cannella's vote, angered many conservatives in the Republican Party. On Friday, Cannella was blasted with hundreds of irate comments after he posted on his Facebook page: ""I think I'm going to stay off social media today..."

Others applauded the vote.

"We appreciate Senator Cannella's leadership in working to fix California's roads and transportation system throughout the Central Valley and the entire state. The stable funding source outlined in SB 1 will provide critical benefits to California's economy and our jobs climate," said Allan Zaremberg, president and CEO, California Chamber of Commerce.

Tensions were high leading up to the vote, as Brown was unsure whether or not he had secured enough votes to pass the bill. Before the vote, he met with Senate Democrats during a recess from the floor session and held back-to-back rallies earlier in the week in an attempt to garner votes.

Deal making with legislators who had not previously supported the bill was another tactic the governor used, and Cannella made sure that the Central Valley didn't walk away from the new plan emptyhanded. Cannella had previously said he may support the bill if the state supported the extension of the Altamont Corridor Express to Ceres and Merced and a parkway project connecting the UC Merced campus to Highway 99. After spending time at Brown's mansion on the eve of the vote, Cannella got the job done. SB 132, a separate bill which went into print Thursday, amends the Budget Act of 2016 to include $400 million for the project, granting Cannella's wish.

While Republican lawmakers have criticized the gas tax hike, Cannella defended his "yes" vote.

"For over two years, I have fought for real solutions to California's transportation problems," said Cannella. "This state cannot continue to just put asphalt band aids on potholes when what we really need is major road and rail surgery to keep Californians and their economy moving. In addition, this will be transformative for commerce and commuter travel throughout the Central Valley.

"This effort will certainly benefit the entire state by improving our dilapidated roadways, but my focus has always been ensuring my district is a participant in California's growth."

Following the state Senate vote, SB 1 was approved by the Assembly Transportation and Assembly Appropriation committees, and was then voted on and passed by the full Assembly floor. Assemblyman Adam Gray, who had previously been on the fence about supporting the bill, joined Cannella as a Valley representative who submitted a "yes" vote for SB 1.

"Senator Cannella and I stood together and made it known we would not support a transportation plan that failed to invest in our underserved region. We would not support new taxes only to watch those dollars leave our community to build infrastructure somewhere else. We would not be forgotten again," said Gray. "Today, I can confidently say that the rest of state remembered the Valley. This plan is truly a game changer for Merced and Stanislaus County."

Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon, voted "no" on the bill, citing concerns about SB 1, such as the fact that the 70 percent gas tax increase is the largest in history as well as the state's significant backlog of basic road repairs.

"The governor and the Legislature have a record of regularly raiding transportation funding for other purposes, and Californians already pay the highest gas prices and vehicle registration fees in the country," said Flora. "I cannot justify asking Californians to dig deeper into their pockets to fix our roads when we can get the job done with what they've given us already."

Despite Flora and other Assembly Republicans' criticism of SB 1, local officials like Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa applauded the votes of Gray and Cannella.

"Our roads in Stanislaus County are falling apart," said Chiesa. "The incredible investments guaranteed to our community under the plan negotiated by both Senator Cannella and Assemblyman Gray will create thousands of jobs, fix our roads and construct a world-class transit network."

On Monday, Ceres City Manager Toby Wells also commended Cannella.

"I want to take the opportunity to thank former mayor, Senator Cannella, for his efforts in standing tall for SB 1," said Wells. "I know none of us like to pay additional taxes but what Senator Cannella was able to do, securing funding for the ACE train to Ceres is a significant item for us."

Angelina Martin contributed to this report.