California counties advance transportation tax increases

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 5/24/2013

One step closer to passage at the California statehouse is a bill to help clear the path for two counties to increase sales taxes for transportation.

The Assembly voted 46-23 to advance to the Senate a bill that would authorize Alameda and Contra Costa counties to put transportation measures on their ballots to boost funding for local infrastructure.

Officials in Alameda County want to take another crack at getting voters to double the local transportation sales tax to fix potholes, improve roads and freeways, and expand public transit throughout the county.

In November, an effort to permanently increase the local tax from one-half cent to one full cent was defeated despite 66.53 percent voting in favor of the change. The question fell just short of the necessary 66.67 percent threshold.

Contra Costa County voters last approved renewing their half-cent tax nearly a decade ago.

The counties cannot put transportation sales tax measures on the ballot without first getting an exemption from state lawmakers. The restriction is in place because some cities would be pushed above a sales tax cap set by the state.

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, said it’s important to make sure the two counties have funds for future transportation projects that are critical to the East Bay’s economic growth.

“This bill allows them to put together transportation proposals and seek the voters’ approval on the ballot,” Wieckowski said. “I believe there is strong support for such improvements and the needs are not going to disappear.”

AB210 would grant both counties the authority to exceed the cap if voters approve an increase by Dec. 31, 2020.

The bill is awaiting assignment to committee in the Senate.

The Senate Governance and Finance Committee advanced two more measures that would lower the voter threshold for approving local transportation sales tax questions.

In place since 1995, California law requires approval of two-thirds of voters in any city, county, or special district to pass transportation tax increases. Affected tax votes include vehicle fees, bonds and sales taxes.

One proposed amendment to the state constitution – SCA8 – would drop the threshold from 66.67 percent to 55 percent. A similar effort, SCA4, also advance from committee.

Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, said the change addresses the lack of ongoing transportation funding in California counties, such as Alameda County, that face increasing traffic congestion, potholes, deteriorating highways, overcrowded buses and poor air quality.

“It is critical that local residents are offered commonsense tools such as this lower voter approval threshold to better manage local transportation needs,” Corbett said in a news release.

The proposed amendments await further consideration in the Senate.

To view other legislative activities of interest for California, click here.