By Tom Elias
Strong ironies are playing out today as California’s 14 Republican members of Congress support President Trump’s announced $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan at the same time they all back a planned ballot initiative to repeal the state’s new gasoline and diesel fuel tax increase.
For without the higher gas tax, California may see little or none of Trump’s announced cash.
No state needs more work on its infrastructure than this one, where more than 1,300 bridges of various sizes and shapes require seismic retrofitting and potholes are common on every type of road from country lanes to major urban freeways.
But if the gas and diesel tax increase disappears, California will have little chance of getting even close to its fair share of the purported new money.
That’s because Trump’s announced $1.5 trillion actually amounts to less than 20 percent of that amount, about $200 billion in federal matching money to be allocated over 10 years after Congress passes the plan, if it ever does. The other 86 percent would come from state and local coffers. Because of high public employee pension requirements and other higher-priority spending, not much cash is likely to be on hand here when needed to match and catch the federal dollars.
This reality doesn’t faze Republicans trying to reverse the fuel tax increase, amounting to 12 cents per gallon of gasoline and 20 cents for diesel. It also raises vehicle license fees on virtually every car and truck in the state. Those tax increases barely got through the Legislature last year and are the reason for the current recall effort against Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton, without whose vote the hikes would have failed.
Republicans, especially current GOP California House members desperately clinging to their seats, believe they need the fuel tax reversal measure to survive. That’s because it now looks like they may not have a candidate on the November ballot for either governor or the U.S. Senate, which could badly depress Republican turnout just when at least seven GOP seats seem seriously threatened by strong anti-Trump sentiment.
So Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, put $100,000 of his campaign funds into the drive to qualify the gas tax repeal for that same November ballot. Devin Nunes of Tulare, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, kicked $50,000 into the campaign. Reps. Mimi Walters of Irvine and Ken Calvert of Corona are in for $25,000 each, so far.
None of them, meanwhile, opposes Trump’s plan, which likely wouldn’t do much for California unless the gas tax stands.
Trump, meanwhile, downplays the requirement for state and local taxpayers to provide the vast majority of his infrastructure funding. “For too long,” he said, “lawmakers have invested in infrastructure inefficiently, ignored critical needs and allowed it to deteriorate.” His plan would change that, he claimed.
Responded state Treasurer John Chiang, currently running third in every poll in the race for governor, “This is a sham of a proposal that offers too little and asks too much…Given the fact that California has at least $850 billion in public works that must be built or repaired, the President’s $200 billion national investment is no better than spit in the ocean.”
It’s even worse than that if the new gas, diesel and vehicle license tax hikes disappear. The 65 percent of those levies earmarked for highways alone will amount to more than $3 billion per year. That’s not much compared to California’s current needs, but it probably is enough to fix the state’s most urgent problems, when combined with previous gas tax money and especially if it’s increased by 20 percent ($600 million yearly) with some of the Trump money.
So the Republican House members pushing and helping fund the gas tax repeal effort are essentially working against the interests of their constituents even as they seek to motivate them to vote. This is nothing new for many of them: Most backed Trump’s tax changes last fall even though some acknowledged those so-called reforms would harm the majority of their constituents.
Knowingly casting votes counter to the interests of their own districts, then, is nothing new for these folks. The only real question is when they might do it again if they’re reelected.