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In Defense of the “Gas Tax”

By Michael Pimentel (MPP Candidate ‘18)

After more than two years of debate, the California State Legislature passed and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1 (Beall & Frazier), a bipartisan transportation funding measure designed to address California’s growing backlog of deferred maintenance on local streets and roads, state highways and public transit systems. The measure, which will generate $52.4 billion over the next ten years from increases in various taxes and fees, was a top priority for Governor Brown in a year that also saw big legislative wins on climate change and air quality, housing affordability, and immigration policy. As with most measures passed by the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, SB 1 quickly drew the ire of Republicans across the state, who blasted its tax and fee increases as “another blow to already struggling Californians.” In a state where the number of registered Republicans trails the number of registered Democrats by more than 3 million, and where 69 percent of Democrats say the state is “going in the right direction,” attacks from the Right are routinely dismissed. Not this time.

What separates the Right’s fury on SB 1 from other matters is the unpopularity of the “gas tax” itself and how that could coalesce with the peculiarities of California’s constitution, which allows for citizen-led initiatives. According to a recent poll by the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, California voters disapprove of the measure by a margin of 23 points, 58 percent to 35 percent. Importantly, voters without a party preference disapprove of the measure by a staggering 35 points. Republicans are listening. Following the signing of SB 1, Republicans advanced two initiative measures that would repeal the various tax and fee increases in SB 1. The first measure, filed by Assemblymember Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach), a 2018 candidate for Governor, would roll back SB 1’s tax and fee increases, reverting California statute to what it was prior to the signing of SB 1. The second measure, ostensibly advanced by San Diego talk radio host Carl DeMaio, but rumored to be bankrolled by Congressional Republicans, would amend California’s constitution to state that the imposition, increase, or extension of any tax on the “sale, storage, use, or consumption of motor vehicle gasoline or diesel fuel, or on the privilege of a resident of California to operate on the public highways a vehicle, or motor coach” is invalid “unless or until that proposed tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a majority vote.” The initiative would apply to any tax that went into effect after January 1, 2017, thus requiring a popular vote on SB 1. Given California’s vast transportation funding needs, both initiatives are reckless and should be stopped by voters.

Here’s what the measures get wrong:

  • Our State Requires New Transportation Funding: According to a 2015 report by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, the state faces a $57 billion funding shortfall over the next ten years for the maintenance and operation of the state highway system. This shortfall means that, today, only 59 percent of all state highway lane-miles are in “good” condition. A report by the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities similarly found that 52 of the 58 counties in the state have pavement that are either “at risk” or in “poor condition,” and require an additional $73 billion over the next ten years to be brought into a state of good repair. The culprit for these funding shortfalls is not mismanagement in Sacramento, but rather excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. As vehicles have become increasingly fuel-efficient, these per-gallon taxes, which provide a vast majority of funding for the rehabilitation of highways, streets and roads, have generated less revenue for the state.
  • Action on Climate Change Requires Strategic Investments in Transportation: According to the California Air Resources Board, the transportation sector is responsible for 38 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the state. To make progress in our fight against climate change, we must make strategic investments in the transportation sector that reduce or eliminate vehicular emissions and that promote “mode shift” that brings Californians out of their single-occupancy vehicles and into various forms of shared mobility, like trains and buses. While SB 1 is primarily focused on rebuilding our crumbling state highways and local streets and roads, it also provides over $700 million annually for the maintenance and expansion of our public transportation network. This investment in public transportation is the state’s single largest commitment in more than 40 years. Additionally, SB 1 will provide $100 million annually for active transportation projects that encourage bicycling and walking, key components of a sustainable transportation network.
  • Using the Initiative Process to Score a Short-Term Win Will Have Long-Term Consequence:  While a repeal of SB 1 will lower prices at the pump in 2018, it will compound the expense of necessary infrastructure work in the near future. An assessment by the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities found that, if SB 1 funding is repealed, the percentage of failed streets and roads in California will increase from 6.9% today to 22.2% by 2026. This deterioration will ultimately cost Californians more in future taxes as our deferred maintenance backlog for this infrastructure swells from $40 billion to $61 billion in 2026. By the same token, a recent report from the California Department of Transportation finds that every dollar of preventative maintenance, the type of investment that would be frontloaded by SB 1, prevents $3 dollars in rehabilitation work and $8 in replacement. As with investments in other policy domains, preventative measures in transportation are cheaper than corrective action.

For these reasons, you can expect to see business leaders, environmentalists, and good government advocates joining Democrats across the state in pushing back on Republican efforts to undermine SB 1. We will be looking to you, the informed public, to help amplify our message.

Michael Pimentel is a Masters of Public Policy candidate at GSPP. Alongside his studies, Michael serves as a Legislative and Regulatory Advocate for the California Transit Association, an organization representing more than 80 transit agencies in California. The Association was a key player in the stakeholder coalition that helped secure the passage of Senate Bill 1.