California transportation funding agreement closer to reality?

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 11/10/2015

The California Legislature continues to meet in special session in their pursuit of plans to address some of the $59 billion in state transportation needs over the next decade. However, they don’t appear to be any closer to a deal in the session that started over the summer.

Democrats have offered a plan to raise about $4.3 billion annually for infrastructure largely through higher fuel taxes.

Although Democrats are the majority party in the state they do not hold the “supermajority” necessary to pass a tax increase. As a result, some Republican votes are necessary to approve a bill to increase the state’s excise tax on gas and diesel by 12 cents and raise certain vehicle fees.

Instead of increased taxes and fees, the GOP wants to first address concerns with how business is done at Caltrans and tap existing sources of revenue for roads and bridges.

The minority party has highlighted a state auditor’s finding of a Caltrans audit. The audit released in August shows that the agency approved the time sheets of an engineer who played golf for 55 workdays over a 19-month period that ended in spring 2014.

One bill in the Assembly Republicans nine-point, $6.6 billion plan would eliminate 3,500 “redundant” positions at Caltrans. The state’s Legislative Analyst Office found that eliminating the positions would save the state $500 million each year.

Instead of making changes, California Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly has called for Republicans to get on board with Democratic plans. Kelly wrote in a recent open letter that “transportation needs a permanent and stable funding plan – not more budget gimmicks and borrowing – to avoid the volatility of the past two decades.”

The Assembly Republicans’ plan includes rerouting to roads $1 billion in certain truck fees. Since 2010 state lawmakers have diverted from the state’s highway account to the general fund the vehicle weight fees paid by commercial vehicles.

Kelly has said the switch back would require the general fund to pay debt service on bonds that funded transportation work throughout the state. He also noted that Republicans supported the maneuver when it was approved at the statehouse.

GOP lawmakers also want to tap the state’s Cap and Trade program. The program collects $1.9 billion annually through higher fuel prices to benefit Gov. Jerry Brown’s high speed rail project.

Specifically, Republicans want to use 40 percent of the funds each year to help pay for their road and bridge funding plan.

Kelly wrote that although Republicans opposed the program, now they want to use it for road repairs. However, he points out “the law requires that investments result in quantifiable greenhouse gas emission reductions.”

In an effort to validate their plans for Cap and Trade funds, Republican leaders state that “better roads mean better fuel efficiency, which leads to a clear reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

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