Brown is crank­ing on roads, health

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - GE­ORGE SKEL­TON i n sacra­mento

Gov. Jerry Brown fi­nally is kick­ing it in gear on Cal­i­for­nia highways.

For years — go­ing back to his first gov­er­nor­ship in the ’ 70s — he an­noy­ingly sat in idle.

Now Brown has de­cided to fill up the tax tank to fuel spend­ing on badly needed re­pairs, restor­ing the gleam to Cal­i­for­nia’s high­way sys­tem.

“The roads are run­ning down,” he told re­porters last week in call­ing a spe­cial leg­isla­tive ses­sion to raise money for road- fix­ing. “If your roof is leak­ing, you’d bet­ter plug it up or you’re go­ing to pay more later.” What prompted this? “I think some­body fi­nally got to him and said, ‘ You’d bet­ter do some­thing or

you’re in trou­ble,’ ” sur­mises Se­nate Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jim Beall ( D- San Jose), who long has ad­vo­cated pay­ing more at­ten­tion to highways.

“Does he want to leave the place bet­ter than when he came in? If he doesn’t do any­thing, he’s go­ing to leave things worse. It doesn’t do any good to have a bal­anced bud­get if ev­ery­thing is fall­ing apart.”

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Brown rushed to aid Cal­i­for­nia’s healthcare pro­gram for the poor, Medi- Cal, which is run­ning short of money as he ex­pands it. He and the Leg­is­la­ture, for ex­am­ple, just de­cided to cover im­mi­grant chil­dren who are here il­le­gally.

But a big­ger money prob­lem is that the state has been tax­ing Medi- Cal man­aged care plans to help fund the pro­gram. Now the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has or­dered that stopped, cre­at­ing a $ 1.1- bil­lion hole.

So the gover­nor will try to raise taxes for Medi- Cal, too, in a spe­cial leg­isla­tive ses­sion. One idea: in­creased to­bacco taxes.

Why spe­cial ses­sions? Why not just work on bills in the reg­u­lar ses­sion?

First, gover­nors be­lieve they earn PR points when they call spe­cial ses­sions, which were a much big­ger deal when the Leg­is­la­ture op­er­ated part time half a cen­tury ago.

But there still are some ad­van­tages to a spe­cial ses­sion. A gover­nor can fo­cus the Leg­is­la­ture’s at­ten­tion — and pre­sum­ably some of the public’s — on a sub­ject. He can set the law­mak­ers’ agenda un­less they sim­ply ig­nore him, which isn’t likely when the gover­nor and leg­isla­tive lead­ers are of the same party.

Leg­is­lat­ing can be ex­pe­dited. Com­mit­tee hear­ings can be held im­me­di­ately. Nor­mally, there’s a 30- day wait­ing pe­riod af­ter a bill is in­tro­duced.

These are two very im­por­tant, ag­gres­sive moves — try­ing to hike taxes for highways and healthcare — by a gover­nor who of­ten is ag­o­niz­ingly cau­tious.

Tax in­creases, how­ever, re­quire a two- thirds vote. So he’ll need some Repub­li­can help be­cause Democrats lost their briefly held su­per­ma­jor­ity in the last elec­tion

He’s more likely to get it for highways than healthcare for the poor.

Look at the num­bers: There are 12.4 mil­lion en­rolled in Medi- Cal, nearly one- third of the pop­u­la­tion. That’s a ton. But it’s only half the num­ber of li­censed driv­ers, many of them vi­tal cogs who keep the econ­omy rolling.

The prob­lem for ad­e­quate high­way fund­ing is that cars have be­come so fuel- ef­fi­cient that driv­ers are pump­ing less gas. So the gas tax is fall­ing far short of what was pro­jected when it was last raised in 1990. Brown says it’s pro­duc­ing $ 2.3 bil­lion an­nu­ally for main­te­nance and re­pairs, but $ 5.7 bil­lion more is needed.

Se­nate Repub­li­can Leader Bob Huff ( R- San Di­mas) told me he thinks “there’s some room” for a gas tax in­crease. But rais­ing taxes for Medi- Cal is a “thornier is­sue” and “prob­lem­atic.”

“Trans­porta­tion is a lot eas­ier to get your arms around,” the GOP leader says.

The inf lu­en­tial busi­ness lobby feels the same way.

“If Repub­li­cans want to vote for taxes for trans­porta­tion, I’m ab­so­lutely fine with it,” says Allan Zarem­berg, pres­i­dent of the state Cham­ber of Com­merce. “I just want to make sure the money is spent on trans­porta­tion.”

Zarem­berg says pri­vate polling shows that Cal­i­for­ni­ans “think the roads are in ter­ri­ble shape, but they don’t want to raise taxes. They be­lieve we’re al­ready pay­ing a lot of money and it’s be­ing used for some­thing else.”

Beall has in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to raise sev­eral fuel and ve­hi­cle levies. And one pro­vi­sion guar­an­tees that the money will be spent only for road re­pairs.

Another thing peo­ple in­sist on, Beall says, is that “ev­ery­body else pays their fair share.” That’s why he’s ad­vo­cat­ing a mix of taxes.

The sen­a­tor pro­poses in­creas­ing the cur­rent 36- cent- per- gallon state gas tax by 10 cents, enough to match inf la­tion since 1990, he says. Diesel taxes would rise 12 cents, with some of it used to re­lieve truck con­ges­tion around ports. He’d grad­u­ally hike the an­nual ve­hi­cle li­cense fee from 0.65% of mar­ket value to 1%. And he’d boost the $ 43 reg­is­tra­tion fee by $ 35.

Plus, Beall would tack on a $ 100 sur­charge for elec­tric ve­hi­cles that don’t use any gas. “They’re ac­tu­ally pretty heavy” and tear up roads faster than gas- burn­ing cars, he says.

Brown may not buy that. He’s try­ing to pro­mote zero- emis­sion ve­hi­cles. “Call­ing them out” with ex­tra taxes “is a bit counter” to the gover­nor’s pol­icy, says his bud­get di­rec­tor, Michael Co­hen.

Beall’s leg­is­la­tion would raise about $ 4 bil­lion an­nu­ally. Half would go to the state, half to cities and coun­ties.

Other ideas: charg­ing tolls for sin­gle- oc­cu­pied ve­hi­cles to use car­pool lanes. Some­how as­sess­ing a mileage fee, which the state is study­ing for the fu­ture.

“We have mas­sive un­der­fund­ing,” Brown says, “and one way or the other, we’re go­ing to have to find some so­lu­tions.”

He’ll need to drive ag­gres­sively, pedal to the me­tal.

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

A WORN SEC­TION of the Main Street of­framp from the south­bound 5 Free­way. A sen­a­tor has pro­posed rais­ing fuel and ve­hi­cle levies to pay for road re­pair.

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