Opinion Columns & Blogs

Our highways need improving. But it shouldn’t take new taxes to do it.

Columnist Andrea Seastrand
Columnist Andrea Seastrand dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Look out, Sacramento politicians are coming for your wallet once again.

Gov. Jerry Brown and many state legislators want to raise gas taxes and vehicle license fees by billions of dollars to pay for transportation repairs and improvements. And unfortunately, the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments politicians voted 9-2 to support raising those state taxes and fees.

Everyone agrees that state politicians have for decades neglected to make much-needed infrastructure improvements. Eighty-seven percent of California’s roads are in fair or poor condition, according to Senate Bill 1, which seeks an annual $6 billion increase in transportation taxes and fees. California faces an estimated $132 billion deferred maintenance backlog over the next 10 years.

In addition to the tax and fee hikes in Senate Bill 1, Brown’s proposed budget and infrastructure plan seeks $4.3 billion annually for transportation improvements with the help of a $65 motorist fee increase and a gas tax hike. And Assembly Bill 1 seeks $6 billion in gas tax and vehicle fee hikes for transportation improvements.

But while everyone agrees state leaders have dropped the ball and more money needs to be spent on road improvements, there is a major disagreement on whether taxes and fees need to be raised to provide the extra funding. California is not impoverished — it has the sixth largest economy in the world, and state government spends about $180 billion annually.

State government doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a problem prioritizing its spending. About 55 percent of the $122.5 billion General Fund portion of the budget goes to education, about 28 percent for health and human services and 9 percent for prisons. Transportation amounts to a paltry 0.2 percent of General Fund spending. It comprises 6.3 percent of the overall budget, but only $3.6 billion is spent on transportation capital outlay projects in the current budget.

There is money available in the state budget that could and should be used to shore up our infrastructure. That’s why the Central Coast Taxpayers Association opposed the Measure J transportation sales tax that was defeated on the November ballot. Californians already pay some of the highest taxes in the nation; we don’t need more.

Instead, we should support legislation such as Assembly Bill 496 by Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield. It would provide $2.2 billion in one-time funding and $5.6 billion annually for transportation infrastructure, including 30 percent dedicated to new roads and road widening — without raising taxes or fees. It would require that all of the transportation-related taxes and fees we are already paying be spent on transportation rather than being siphoned off to other government programs. For example, $1 billion in truck weight fees currently go to the General Fund.

“Every dollar that we pay for in gas tax, diesel tax, vehicle license fee, car insurance, buying a new car, buying a used car, every dollar that we already pay for, should be dedicated to transportation,” Fong said in a KERN radio interview. “I want a debate about budget priorities. In the last six years the General Fund has increased over $36 billion, and zero dollars of that $36 billion has gone to transportation infrastructure.”

Eighty-seven percent of Californians say they believe state legislators are not spending enough time on fixing highways, roads and bridges, according to a recent California Chamber of Commerce survey. Nearly four out of five rate the state’s transportation infrastructure as fair or poor. And 80 percent say the solution should be through better management of current state funds.

Despite Democrats having a supermajority in the state Legislature, it’s not certain that either Assembly Bill 1 or Senate Bill 1 will get the required two-thirds approval to pass. Gas taxes and vehicle fees are regressive, hurting low-income Californians the most. Some Democrats at the Senate Transportation Committee hearing on Senate Bill 1 expressed concern that the bill further discriminates against the poor by increasing the vehicle license fee hike less on electrical vehicle owners ($100 versus $240 for gas vehicles), although electric vehicles tend to be owned by wealthier motorists.

The politicians are coming for your wallet, but you don’t have to let them take it. Tell them to spend the taxes and fees you’re already paying before seeking more of your hard-earned dollars.

Conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand is a former representative for the 22nd Congressional District, a longtime grassroots activist and current president of the Central Coast Taxpayers Association. Her column runs in The Tribune every other Sunday, in rotation with liberal columnist Tom Fulks.