When Senate Bill 1 was passed and signed into law in 2017, Californians were told the tax hikes it authorized were good for them. The revenues were to be dedicated to repairing the state’s lousy roads.
Yet there have been numerous accountability and transparency questions about the law, enough that a bipartisan bill emerged a few weeks ago demanding increased public “access to SB 1 data so that the expenditure of these valuable taxpayer dollars is easily visible and verifiable.”
Senate Bill 992, written by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and co-authored by eight other Democrats as well as three Republicans, would ensure the public that funding for 2017’s Road Repair and Accountability Act — about $5.2 billion a year and $52 billion over a decade from increased taxes on motor fuels — will be used for its intended purpose.
Unfortunately, it’s about a year too late.
Almost six months ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued executive order N-19-19, which obligates the state transportation agency to leverage the more than $5 billion in annual state transportation spending for construction, operations and maintenance to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation sector.
This would be achieved a number of ways. One would be reducing automobile travel by strategically directing discretionary transportation investments in support of housing production near available jobs and in accordance with the state’s smart growth principles. Newsom is essentially bumping Californians out of their cars and into other modes of transportation, as well as funding alternatives that include transit, walking, biking, and other active modes. State Sen. Andreas Borgeas, the Republican who represents Fresno in the Legislature, was baffled by Newsom’s order, questioning the legality of moving a pot of money approved by voters for a specific use to something else.
Even before the order, SB 1 revenues were being diverted to further political objectives. Sacramento, La Quinta, and San Luis Obispo are among a group of cities given funds from motor fuel taxes to build protected bike lanes. Completing the projects required car lanes to be downsized or eliminated altogether.
Earlier in the year, Newsom threatened to withhold SB 1 funds from cities and counties that didn’t conform to government’s homebuilding plans. The law has become much more than just a means of funding improvements to California’s vehicle arteries.
The revenues from SB 1, which added 12 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline, thereby creating the highest gasoline tax regime in the country, and 20 cents to a gallon of diesel fuel, leaving the state with the highest diesel taxes in America. These funds should be spent to improve California’s rotten automobile infrastructure, not pirated for political uses.
Redoubling the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change — the aim of Newsom’s executive order — has now become a political wedge.
When given the chance to scrap the hated SB 1 through Proposition 6 on the November 2018 ballot, nearly 57 percent of voters chose to keep it, likely believing that every penny of the revenue would be used to fix the state’s battered roads.
After all, just five months earlier voters had overwhelmingly approved Proposition 69, a constitutional amendment requiring SB 1 revenues to be spent solely on transportation-related projects. Voters were warned, though, that Prop. 69 was a ruse.
State Sen. John Moorlach, an Orange County Republican who voted against Prop. 69, wondered if it was a “supposed to make us feel better,” or if it was “an indictment that Sacramento can’t help itself when it comes to spending your money?”
Though approved by more than 81 percent of voters, Prop. 69 nevertheless failed to stop elected officials from raiding SB 1 funds.
So now everyone, those who voted to keep the law, as well as those who voted to repeal it, are getting less than was promised for their money.
Worse, the plundered dollars are being wasted on a project that has zero value.
There is simply not enough known about the human impacts on the climate to justify costly and sweeping public policy agendas, such as Newsom’s climate change campaign. What we do know is California produces less than 1 percent of all global greenhouse gas, or GHG, emissions. Nothing Sacramento does regarding GHG emissions will have an impact on the climate.
Sacramento could, however, cut automobile emissions, and not just GHGs but also real tailpipe pollutants, by adding new lanes with SB 1 revenues. Idling in heavy congestion is not eco-friendly. Freeing traffic would actually have an impact similar to taking cars off the road.
Yet the governor alone has decided that drivers will have to wait on better roads while a portion of their tax dollars are wasted. Too often the temptation is to say forget it Jake, it’s California.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.