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Nearly $1 billion in side deals cemented legislative vote to raise California’s gas tax

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Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a gas tax plan last week to raise $52 billion for the repair of California’s roads. (Mike Koozmin/2012 S.F. Examiner)
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SACRAMENTO — In one of the biggest legislative victories of his storied political career, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed through a plan last week that will increase gas taxes and vehicle fees to raise $52 billion over the next decade for the repair of California’s system of crumbling roads, highways and bridges.

But the win didn’t come cheaply — Brown and legislative dealers promised nearly $1 billion for the pet projects of lawmakers who had been sitting on the fence before they were persuaded to vote for the bill.

The funding “arrangements,” as Brown called them, helped the governor and legislators break a two-year Sacramento stalemate on transportation funding.

Some legislators said the horse-trading taints the legislative process, but Brown defended the deals as justified, a moderate investment compared with the payoff of a bill that will generate $5.2 billion annually in the first 10 years for road repairs, and billions more in future years.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as big as this particular transportation bill,” Brown told reporters after the vote late Thursday night. “So I would say some of the arrangements that were entailed in this process, they may look large, but relative to $52 billion, it’s all pretty modest.”

Republican leaders said the deals were unseemly and set a bad precedent.

“Democrats just gave us the largest gas tax increase in state history — a deal so bad they needed $1 billion in pork to buy the votes to pass it,” said Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley. “California deserves better.”

The bill, approved by two-thirds votes of the Senate and Assembly on Thursday, raises the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon, boosts diesel taxes and creates a new annual fee when cars and trucks are registered.

Similar proposals have languished for years, but Brown and legislative leaders set a quick-turn April 6 deadline for action, hoping to pressure a compromise before the Legislature’s spring break — ahead of big debates to come in 2017 on the state budget and hundreds of bills.

The side deals, which still require legislative approval, showed up in two changes to the budget bill language, with most of it made public at 4 a.m. on the day of the vote.

The biggest concession made was a $500-million budget allocation for pet projects helping the districts of state Sen. Anthony Cannella, a Republican, and Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray, both of whom held out support for the bill until the day before the vote.

Cannella’s vote proved critical. Although Democrats enjoy a supermajority in both houses, Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer voted against the bill, citing opposition from his constituents and a concern that the bill could have been better crafted, leaving it one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

The night before the vote, Cannella was called to a meeting with Brown, Senate leader Kevin de Leon, a Democrat, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, also a Democrat, at the governor’s mansion.

There, the leaders agreed to provide $400 million in transportation funds through 2027 for the extension of the Altamont Corridor Express, a commuter rail line between the Bay Area and Central Valley. The project would extend the line from Lathrop to Ceres and Merced inside Cannella’s district.

“The ACE train is a big deal for me. It’s important for my district,” Cannella said before the vote.

The budget trailer bill was also amended to include $100 million from the State Highway Account through 2023 for a parkway project at the University of California, Merced campus.

Cannella said the conversation at the governor’s mansion was a long one, ending at 10 p.m. He prevailed.

“I got the things I asked for, so apparently I made the most compelling case,” he said. “It was very hard to get.”

Brown said the deals struck with lawmakers helped the state achieve the larger goal of fixing its roads and bridges.

“Look, everybody here has needs and they have problems,” the governor said. “Everyone I look (at) here has to face the voters. They want to face them with the best foot forward and we want to help them do that.”

The author of the gas tax bill, Democratic state Sen. Jim Beall, downplayed the accommodation made for Cannella.

“He’s getting something specifically earmarked in a way where he can feel comfortable to vote for it,” Beall said. “In the real way of looking at transit funding, it’s still is a system where everybody gets their fair share.”

The money, the governor said, would be well spent.

“Sometimes these bills that take all these different arrangements and compromises help the very people that we came here to serve,” Brown said.

The $100-million parkway request for UC Merced would help connect the campus to the 99 Freeway. That side deal gave Gray cover to vote for an unpopular tax increase.

“I can go home straight-faced and say to people, ‘This is tough. We’ve got to dig deeper.’ Nobody likes diesel and gas taxes. But this is a tangible, real benefit that I can point to,” Gray said.

He acknowledged that other members might not receive the same infusion of dollars in their districts.

“It’s a fair point, although I would make the argument [that] we’ve historically been underserved. And they’ve historically been overserved,” he said, noting specifically Los Angeles’ large share of transportation dollars.

The new budget language also provides $427 million for transportation projects in Riverside County. The area’s representative, Democratic Sen. Richard Roth, held off supporting the bill until the last day.

Roth and Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, a Democrat, said the extra money was necessary to guarantee that the county was no longer neglected when it came time to distribute road repair dollars. Roth felt Riverside County has not received its fair share of transportation funds in the past.

The governor and top legislators spent pre-dawn hours on Thursday and most of the afternoon of the vote trying to coax Cervantes. She ended up voting yes immediately as the Assembly vote roll was opened.

“For too long, Sacramento has failed to provide Inland Southern California with the resources we deserve,” the two lawmakers said in a joint statement after the vote. “Though this was a difficult vote, the cost of our region not getting its fair share is too high.”

The allocation offered by the governor includes $180 million for construction of a connector between State Route 91 and Interstate 15 North and $84.4 million for a bridge to take McKinley Street over busy railroad tracks in Riverside.

The two legislators said they also secured a commitment from Brown to support a bill of Roth’s that would provide $18 million to the cities of Eastvale, Jurupa Valley, Menifee and Wildomar to reimburse them for vehicle license fee revenue they lost through a change in law on newly incorporated cities.

Brown had vetoed previous bills to provide bailout funds for the cities.

Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva, also a holdout vote until the end, said she was able to convince Democratic leaders that something was needed to mitigate pollution from trucks that serve warehouses, including those in her district.

The budget trailer bill was amended at the last minute to include $50 million from the state Air Resources Board, much of it for grants that warehouses could compete for to provide heavy-duty vehicles that have zero or near-zero emissions.

She said an emissions reduction program already exists at a Fontana warehouse in her district and added that she also represents areas with massive warehouses in Ontario and Chino.

“For me this is all about mitigation and air quality and how do we make sure in this deal that we are not further polluting the air, not only in the Inland Empire but also in the ports, Long Beach and Oakland,” Leyva said.

Shortly before 11 p.m. Thursday, just minutes after the gas-tax bill passed the Assembly with no votes to spare, Brown was clearly excited as he stood in front of his Capitol office to talk to reporters about the victory many pundits predicted would elude him.

Asked about the side deals that got him the votes, Brown voiced no regrets.

“You could get a train going to the Central Valley? Does anyone want trains more than me? No,” Brown said. “You could get projects and parks in some of the poorest neighborhoods in California? Hallelujah!”

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