PHOENIX – Local government lobbyists think California may have a window to pass transportation funding legislation this spring, nearly a year after Gov. Jerry Brown called an extraordinary legislative session to deal with the state's underfunded transportation infrastructure.
Brown, a Democrat, introduced a transportation funding package along with his proposed budget earlier this month after lawmakers reconvened in Sacramento.
In his proclamation convening the legislature's special session last June, Brown cited $5.7 billion of annual unfunded road infrastructure repair requirements. Lawmakers have held hearings and introduced some legislation during that session, which remains active, but taken no concrete action.
"The ten year funding plan will provide a total of $36 billion for transportation with an emphasis on repairing and maintaining the existing transportation infrastructure," Brown's new budget proposal said. "It also includes a significant investment in public transit."
Brown's proposal projects $2 billion annually from a new $65 fee on all vehicles, including hybrids and electrics, as well as another $1 billion of additional gasoline and diesel fuel tax revenue. Other revenues would come from cap-and-trade proceeds from the state's carbon emissions marketplace and cost-saving reforms.
"Additionally, the Budget includes a general fund commitment to transportation by accelerating $879 million in loan repayments over the next four years," Brown said in the proposal. "These funds will support additional investments in the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program, trade corridor improvements, and repairs on local roads and the state highway system. Without this commitment, these funds would be paid back over the next 20 years."
Kiana Valentine, a legislative representative for the California State Association of Counties, said her group views Brown's proposal as "a really positive place to start."
The Fix Our Roads Coalition, an advocacy group including numerous local governments and local government groups, businesses, and labor organizations, also responded positively to Brown's budget proposal.
"We want to thank the Governor for his continued leadership and commitment to addressing our massive transportation needs at both the state and local level," the coalition said in a statement. "The Governor's budget proposal represents a solid baseline for ramping up discussions toward a hopeful solution in the coming weeks. We also commend the work the transportation conference committee members and others have done to date to continue to make fixing our roads a priority.
"There is zero doubt we need to pass a package of bills now that provide sustained transportation funding, along with accountability reforms to ensure we're making the most of transportation dollars," the statement continued. "Lack of funding is taking a significant toll. Our freeways, county roads and city streets continue to deteriorate, while vitally needed maintenance projects remain stalled. The California Transportation Commission, counties, and cities are delaying start dates – in some cases indefinitely — for projects already approved."
Brown's package is not alone among proposals for dealing with California's infrastructure woes. Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, introduced his own legislation earlier this month. Frazier, who chairs the California Assembly's Committee on Transportation, said his Assembly Bill 1591 would increase gas and diesel fuel taxes along with other fees to raise an additional $8 billion of funding.
Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose who chairs the special session's transportation panel, also has his SBX1-1. That bill would rely on new car registration fees and new taxes, including an increase the gas tax.
Democrats are dominant in both chambers of the legislature, but not by the two-thirds necessary to raise taxes without Republican support. Republicans have been hesitant to raise taxes at the pump, where Californians already pay among the highest prices in the nation. Orange County Republican Sen. John Moorlach has been staunch opponent of any framework based on gas tax increases, reacting sharply to Brown's proposal after having previously fought against Beall's legislation in the special session.
"Every California family knows that our state is a very expensive one in which to live," Moorlach said. "That includes our state government, which has the nation's highest income and sales taxes, and now the highest gas taxes when adding the new cap and trade taxes. With $7 billion in revenues above last year's budget, we can't ask these families to pay even more in higher gas taxes. That will be a major difference between Senate Republicans and the Governor."
Jennifer Whiting, a lobbyist for the California League of Cities, said that legislators have been in discussion the entire time since adjourning in the fall, and that she expects the pace of work to accelerate now that there are multiple packages on the table and lawmakers are back at work.
"I think the table has been set," Whiting said, pegging March-June as the most likely window of opportunity based on legislative deadlines and the work schedule. Beall, Frazier, and Brown's proposals all have "very similar frameworks," Whiting said, and she expects that the final legislative answer will be some fusion of those with some constitutional protections for transportation revenue added in order to win some votes from Republicans.
Whiting also said that the final legislation will most likely come out of the special session, now running concurrently with the regular one. While bills can be introduced in and passed in either, she said, the special session is not beholden to some of the same deadline requirements and bills can be shepherded through the process a bit more easily there.
Valentine said that there have been rumors in Sacramento of a new bill that could be introduced shortly, but didn't have details about how it might significantly differ from existing proposals.
"That could be a game-changer," she said.
Any legislation approved out of the special session committees would still need the approval of the full legislature to become law.