California’s latest civil war has started.
Just like the previous two civil wars – the battle over property taxes that ended with passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 and the state’s most wide spread water war in 1982 that spiked the Peripheral Canal – it will generate campaigns that will mobilize almost all Californians and will be settled at the ballot box.
The war started officially June 25 with Secretary of State Alex Padilla announcing the gas tax repeal measure had qualified for the Nov. 6 ballot.
The move to repeal the gas tax increase as outlined by Senate Bill 1 has the same basic roots as the anger that gave us Proposition 13 and killed the Peripheral Canal. It was driven by a populace at their wits’ end that Sacramento had ignored them and functioned in their own little world beneath the Golden Dome.
Proposition 13 was the result of years of lip service from the Legislature promising property tax reform. Proposition 9 – the measure that stopped the Peripheral Canal – was the result of decades of deceptive moves and hollow promises when it came to how the state’s water is harnessed.
The gas tax is cut from the same poisoned fruit. For 25 years legislators ignored the fact the gas tax was neither indexed to inflation and that it was losing ground to fuel efficiency. At the same time the state has never been 100 percent forthcoming on how gas tax was historically spent and how it was continued under Senate Bill 1. As a result it opened the door for accusations the state was hijacking gas tax revenue for other purposes.
There is an element of truth in that claim money is being “diverted from roads” that opponents of the gas tax increase have made.
It has allowed the opposition to beat the drums that 30 percent of the gas tax increase is not going for roads per se. They are correct. More than a quarter is going to transit, rail and bicycle projects. They are indeed transit related but aren’t specifically tied into the myopic mantra of gas tax proponents that the money generated will go to “repairing our crumbling highways and bridges.” It doesn’t matter whether it is a historic use of gas tax or even if it is a proper use of gas tax, state leaders chose to characterize the increase in sound bites and political hit pieces as sounding as if every cent collected would go toward roads.
There is another 3 percent of each penny collected that goes to neither roads, transit, bicycles or rail. Some of that goes to the state parks system to pay for off-road vehicle parks. Some of the tax collected on the sale of fuel for farms goes to state agricultural endeavors. Both programs got money before the gas tax increase and benefitted from the increase as well.
SB1 included $7 million to help fund transportation research at the University of California as well as the California State University systems. Another $5 million is going to pre-apprenticeship programs for formerly incarcerated women and minorities.
The 3 percent “other” represents in gas tax funding is a drop in the proverbial bucket but it speaks volumes about the tendency of Sacramento leadership to play fast and loose with words when making what sound like absolute promises. To condemn the opposition for doing the same is rich.
That said the 25 percent going to transit, rail, and bicycle is nothing new. You can make a solid case it gets cars off the roads and reduces congestion as well as wear and tear. The other items not mentioned that isn’t going for roads per se are mandated set asides made by lawmakers over the years for road related projects such as landscaping.
SB 1 is far from being progressive. It is regressive because the gas tax had always been regressive. The poorest workers – think farm laborers – historically drive the oldest cars that get the worst gas mileage meaning they pay proportionally more per mile of driving that puts wear and tear on roads that those making significantly more how can afford newer and more fuel efficient vehicles.
Even the DMV surcharge portion of SB 1 to be mixed with the gas tax is regressive despite efforts not to make it so. The add on annual fee that started this year ranges from $25 for vehicles less than $5,000 in value to $175 for vehicles worth $60,000 of more.
The state carved out an exception for electric vehicles – think heavily tax credit subsidized Teslas. All electric vehicles regardless of weight or cost will pay a flat $100 annual DMV surcharge and obviously no gas tax.
It doesn’t matter that a top-end Tesla may match a gas-powered BMW in cost and weight – which means it will wear and tear roads the same as the BMW – but the owner will get a $75 break in a DMV surcharge and pay no gas tax. Both the surcharge and the gas tax hike were pitched as a fair way to spread road costs. But just like the pigs in “Animal Farm,” some drivers such as those behind the wheel of a Tesla are more equal than others.
As with property taxes and the Peripheral Canal folks in Sacramento are counting on voters not inflicting wounds on themselves at the ballot box given well-maintained roads are critical for the economy and safety.
Jerry Brown might have an inkling of how dangerous such thinking can be given he was governor during the last two revolts that brought us Proposition 13 and killed the canal.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.