Faced with a personal appeal by Gov. Jerry Brown, a state Senate panel on Monday gave the first approval to a measure that would raise gas taxes and vehicle fees by $52 billion during the next decade for road and bridge repairs.
The bill by Brown and legislative leaders was approved in a 5-2, party-line vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which sent it to the Senate floor, where it is proposed to come up for a vote in the next few days.
"The roads are broken and they are getting worse, and they are not going to get better unless we get a significant injection of money," Brown told the panel in rare testimony to a legislative committee.
The governor made similar comments later in the day to the Assembly Transportation Committee, where Republicans challenged him on the past diversion of transportation funds to the general fund. Brown noted the money went to pay debt on transportation bonds, so the money was properly spent.
Brown acknowledged that the tax increases are "a big lift" and are politically difficult. "I know there is a political concern because people don't like gas taxes, but what do you do," he said. He said if action is not taken this year, it might not happen for years.
"All the guys running for governor [in 2020] want to be president so they are not going to want to raise taxes," he told the committee.
Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) was among the committee members who voted for the bill.
"The tax hasn't increased in 23 years," Hill said. "I think this is a reasonable approach in trying to balance the need with the demand."
Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) complained the proposal ignores Republican ideas for using existing funds to fix roads.
"It isn't bipartisan," she told the governor, who accused Republican lawmakers of being haunted by "the ghost of Howard Jarvis," the late tax-cutting pioneer.
Assemblyman Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) clashed with Brown on Monday over how the proposal may add to increases in fuel prices expected from the state's cap-and-trade program, which requires polluters such as oil refineries to buy permits to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Fong pointed to a report he requested from legislative analysts, who said the price per gallon could increase between 24 cents and 73 cents per gallon by 2031, depending on the cost of cap-and-trade permits.
"California continues to become more unaffordable because of decisions made in Sacramento, and hardworking Californians are bearing the burden," he said.
Brown noted that Republicans will vote against extension of the cap-and-trade program anyway.
"You guys are talking out of both sides of your mouth," he told Fong at the hearing.
Wendy James, director of the California Business Alliance for a Clean Economy, said it was "ridiculous to try to assess any specific cost increase to a particular policy."
"Blaming environmental policies for gas price spikes has been the industry's go-to excuses for decades while they sit back and count their cash," James said. "The truth is, almost every gas price spike is related to some problem within the oil industry."
Meanwhile, Consumer Watchdog on Monday said in a letter to lawmakers that it opposes the legislation as long as it takes money from motorists and said the state instead should enact a bill that would take a portion of windfall profits from the oil industry to pay for road and bridge repairs.
Several environmental groups said they oppose a provision in the bill that bars government agencies from requiring the retirement, replacement or retrofit of trucks until the later of two conditions: 13 years from the model year of the engine, or when the vehicle reaches 800,000 miles.
"This is one of the most extreme efforts to put bounds on the regulatory agencies' activities to stop pollution that I have seen in recent times," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.
Environmentalists oppose the bill despite an amendment to allow state and regional air-pollution control boards to create new rules to reduce smog created by trucking hubs.
Bill Magavern of the Coalition for Clean Air said the bill ties the hands of air quality regulators who might want to adopt new rules to provide for cleaner truck operations.
"We are concerned by the negative effects that will be caused in the disadvantaged communities we work in," said Abigail Ramirez of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
If approved by the Senate and Assembly, the measure would raise the base excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents a gallon, to a total of 30 cents a gallon, raise diesel taxes and create a new annual vehicle fee that would average $51 based on the value of the car or truck. State officials estimate the tax package will cost the average motorist $10 a month.