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Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck


Brown’s Winning Recipe for Gas Tax Hike

He Made Infrastructure Sausage with a Blend of Pork Barrel Politics


Jerry Brown put on a clinic of old-school horse trading last week, as he barnstormed, browbeat, and backroom-dealt the Legislature into passing the biggest gasoline tax increase in California history.

“It helps bring jobs. It helps bring prosperity,” the governor crowed, after a late-night, not-a-vote-to-spare victory. “There’s real money and people can afford it.”

Real money? Sure. Affordable? Well, maybe.

Senate Bill 1, the focus of the governor’s exertions, clocks in at 19,785 words, authorizing $52 billion to be spent over 10 years on deferred highway construction, road repairs, bridge renovations, public transit, bike lanes, pedestrian paths, and a batch of other public-works goodies.

Financed by new taxes and fees that begin November 1, it is roughly estimated to cost the average motorist 10 bucks a month, through a 12-cent-a-gallon increase in the excise tax on gas; a new vehicle registration fee, between $25 and $175, depending on a vehicle’s age; and a 20-cents-a-gallon uptick for diesel fuel.

Oh yeah, taxes and fees go up each year, pegged to inflation.

Santa Barbara’s state senator, Hannah-Beth Jackson, joined Assemblymember Monique Limón and all but two of the Legislature’s other Democrats in voting aye. Jackson said the bill would pay off locally by generating between (a) $150-$300 million for the Highway 101 widening project, and (b) $50-$100 million for the bogged-down proposal for peak-commuting-time rail service.

“The focus in Washington is on programs that help the rich get richer,” she said. “In California, we’re figuring out ways to help us continue to grow economically and to pay as we go.”

Deal goes down. Brown’s politicking delighted fans of Otto von Bismarck’s well-worn dictum, which equates the technique for making laws with that of processing sausage.

Beyond Bismarck, it also called to mind the persuasive talents of Jerry Brown’s father, the late governor Pat Brown, in building vast public-works schemes, including freeways and the State Water Project, in the 1950s and ’60s.

Although Democrats in November won — barely — the required two-thirds majorities in both legislative houses to approve tax increases, passage of SB 1 was by no means a sure thing.

A collection of Democratic centrists, elected since the 2012 advent of the nonpartisan primary system, worried about outrage over tax increases; crucially, Bay Area Senator Steve Glazer, a former ally of Brown’s, demanded a no-strike clause for transit workers, a nonstarter in a labor-backed measure.

Brown also faced unanimous resistance from Republicans, plus opposition from agriculture, small-business groups, and some environmentalists, who bitterly objected to a sweetheart deal with truckers.

Pushing against a self-imposed deadline that happened to coincide with his 79th birthday, Brown and Democratic leaders assembled a big-business/big-labor coalition that produced a TV and social media campaign to pressure wavering moderate Democrats, plus a string of big rallies in key districts.

At the same time, he met behind closed doors with individuals and interest groups, who won crucial cozy accommodations:

• Republican Senator Anthony Cannella of Ceres got a $400 million earmark extending commuter rail between his Central Valley district and the Bay Area. The only yes-vote GOP member, his backing was determinative because of Glazer’s opposition.

• Gaining political cover, Democratic moderates in the San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire won pet-project funding, ranging from a UC Merced connector road to far-flung road repairs in Riverside County.

• Trucking industry lobbyists, stung by the diesel tax hike, in return secured a loophole exempting many trucks from tough new regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions.

When his term ends in 2019, Brown plans to head for his Colusa County ranch while most of his Democratic colleagues will still be facing voters.

“The Democratic Party is the party of doing things,” he declared after his “What, me worry?” triumph last Thursday night.

At what political cost remains to be seen.



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