[As seen in the Sacramento Bee.]
Although the media is 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 Governor Brown himself – are sensitive to the complaints of California drivers that our roads are in terrible shape. Lengthy commute times and potholes the size of Rhode Island have citizens up in arms. If anything should attract a bipartisan response, this should be it.
But no agreement is in sight as Republicans and Democrats are millions of vehicle miles apart on any solution. Why?
First, Republicans have a natural aversion to tax hikes. California already has the highest income tax rate and the highest state sales tax rate 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 Governor Brown’s father, Pat Brown, did and dedicate existing general fund revenue into 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 why Republicans and Democrats aren’t even having serious discussions: The 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 in the state legislature reached a bipartisan agreement to balance the state budget in which the Republicans agreed to support significant increases to the state’s income, sales and car taxes and the Democrats agreed to put before voters in June of 2012 an initiative limiting state spending increases and increasing the state’s rainy day fund. But on the last day of the legislative session, the Democrat controlled legislature – in an 11th hour “gut and amend” maneuver – passed a union-backed bill that would delay any public vote on the initiative until November of 2014. Indeed, that spending limit proposal that the Democrats agreed to place on the ballot in 2012 never made it on the ballot. Ever.
Here’s what columnist Dan Walters said of this ploy at the time: “[the bill taking the spending limit off the ballot] reneges on the 2010 budget deal, and thus sets a dangerous precedent. Brown complains that Republicans are reluctant to make budget deals, but if a deal can be undone after the fact . . . it would further erode comity in the Capitol and make Republicans even less likely to cooperate.”
So there you have it. Even if Democrats agreed to dedicate transportation dollars to transportation, agreed to a long-needed overhaul of CalTrans and agreed to reforms in environmental regulations which place insurmountable hurdles to any significant transportation project, that agreement would be essentially worthless.
The 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 English rock band, The Who, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.”