California gas tax increases for road plan still lack votes

During Barack Obama’s presidency, Republican congressional leaders easily passed repeals of Obama’s landmark health insurance law, knowing they were DOA.

However, after Obama gave way to Donald Trump, those same leaders could not muster votes for an Obamacare replacement that Trump could sign.

It validated a basic political axiom: When one party dominates a political venue, it often fragments into subfactions that squabble over what to do.

Democrats who control the California Legislature — and even have two-thirds supermajorities in both houses — may be learning the same lesson.

Gov. Jerry Brown and a powerful business-labor-local government coalition want more than $5 billion a year in new taxes and fees for highway maintenance and other transportation purposes.

They unveiled the package last week and hope to move it quickly, before an opposition campaign can coalesce. However, with just hours remaining before a spring break begins, they have been unable, so far, to assemble the required two-thirds legislative votes because a few Democrats are reluctant to support it.

Polling indicates that imposing billions of dollars in new levies is a hard sell in a state which already has one of the nation’s highest taxation burdens — taxes that voters themselves would have to pay, not just impose on cigarette smokers or the wealthy.

Republicans, meanwhile, are unwilling to provide votes to cover the shortage. Instead, the GOP feeds the widespread, if erroneous, belief that new taxes are needed only because the state has diverted billions of transportation dollars to other purposes.

Democrats have hoped that if they were one vote short in the Senate, they might get Modesto Republican Anthony Cannella, who’ll be forced out of the Legislature by term limits next year, to come aboard.

Cannella proposed changes in transportation policy, implying that with them, he’d be open to supporting taxes, and the coalition aired ads to push him. But they may have backfired. “It would be more effective to focus on the issues I have brought up the last 2 years than post ads,” Cannella tweeted Saturday.

As Brown et al twist legislative arms in private, they’re also applying public pressure. They staged a rally in Concord last week, clearly aimed at Democratic Sen. Steven Glazer, one of the holdouts, and plan another in Riverside Tuesday, targeting Democratic Sen. Richard Roth.

Brown touted the package to two legislative committees Monday, telling one: “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 took a little heat from Democratic senators for easing cleaner-burning truck mandates, echoing environmental justice groups’ criticism that it’s “environmental racism.”

Brown characterized it as a gesture so the trucking industry would support sharp increases in diesel fuel taxes, and the criticism didn’t prevent the Senate Appropriations Committee from sending the centerpiece measure, Senate Bill 1, to the Senate floor for a showdown vote later this week.

Dan Walters is a political columnist for The Sacramento Bee.

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