Gavin Newsom’s threat to localities is extortion by any other name

Shortly after his inauguration, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would withhold funds designated for transportation from local governments that didn’t comply with his vision for affordable housing. His move could be characterized as either the height of hypocrisy or extortion. Take your pick.

Let’s start with the hypocrisy. Our new governor has complained bitterly about how the federal government — i.e., the evil Trump administration — threatens to withhold funds from California. He has criticized the withholding of high-speed rail funds from the feds because of California’s failure to meet benchmarks imposed as a condition for the receipt of those funds and he complained about the withholding of law enforcement dollars because of the refusal of California to cooperate with ICE.

In his ongoing war with the federal government, Newsom has bragged about how many times he has sued the federal government, alleging that Trump is engaging in heavy-handed pressure against progressive states like California. It is apparently lost on the governor how hollow his protests appear when he threatens local governments in the same manner.

As for the extortive threat itself, it is little wonder that Newsom has received copious amounts of blowback from other elected officials across the political spectrum. Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, called the move “very unwise.” Likewise, the chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, Jim Frazier, D-Discovery Bay, challenged the idea that new conditions should be placed on road maintenance funds. “It is not fair, or in good faith, to deny them the benefits of [gas tax money] after they have paid for it, based on local government decisions they have no control over.”

As a result of the negative reaction to the governor’s original plan to withhold funds, he has relented — at least a little. His revised budget still retains the idea, but pushes back implementation until 2023. Although not fully satisfying to local governments, the delay has brought a bit of détente to the controversy. It seems that Newsom understands the saying “discretion is the better part of valor.”

Had Newsom followed through with his threat to immediately begin withholding funds, the pushback from other elected officials may have paled in comparison to the reaction from California voters. As noted by Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Hills, “The governor’s proposal to hold money for road repairs captive unless local governments meet his demands is a bait-and-switch on Californians who thought the gas and car taxes would help them and their communities. With the defeat of last November’s gas tax repeal, we are now being conveniently told something different.”

Despite the progressive advance in California, voters are becoming increasingly skeptical of promises made about tax hikes and massive government spending. Prop 1A in 2008 promised voters a modern high speed rail system for only $39 billion. After cost projections for the full system blew through $100 billion, the project is now dead in its tracks. Proposition 30 (2012), which gave California the highest state income tax rate in America, promised us top-flight schools. Now we’re told that schools remain starved for revenue and we need new parcel taxes, bonds and a new statewide tax on business properties to fix the problem. The list of broken promises to voters about taxes and spending is legion.

Voters don’t like being threatened or lied to. Newsom’s decision to dial back his threat to withhold transportation funds may be the wisest political choice he has made so far.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.