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‘You want to have a screwed up state?’ If not, then vote to raise taxes, Brown says

California Transportation Commission member Joseph Tavaglione, left, greets Gov. Jerry Brown before a news conference in Riverside on April 4 on the proposed gas tax for road repairs. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

In the final days before a decisive vote in the Legislature on a sweeping $52-billion tax plan for transportation, the sales pitch from Gov. Jerry Brown often strayed from civic inspiration to political exasperation.

“I’m going to my ranch in two years,” Brown said last week, a nod to plans to retire in 2019 to his Colusa County homestead. “You want to have a screwed up state with a bunch of potholes? Go ahead, but that’s insane.”

That Brown might already be looking ahead to the day he leaves office is not surprising. On the homestretch of his unprecedented return as governor, he can rightly claim victory in bringing a new fiscal discipline to the state Capitol. He has persuaded voters to raise taxes and increase cash reserves. And he has taken his evangelism against the dangers of global climate change to the world stage.

But what Brown has rarely been able to do is break through one of Sacramento’s most difficult barriers: enacting legislation that requires a two-thirds vote in both the state Assembly and Senate.

“What are you guys coming here for?” the governor asked members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday. “This is a real problem.”

Quests for a supermajority vote have bookended Brown’s third and fourth terms in office. In 2011, Brown wined and dined Republican legislators in hopes of persuading them to vote for a special election that would allow voters to help balance a deficit-plagued budget with taxes. They refused. In 2016, there was a brief glimmer of bipartisanship with the reinstatement of an expiring healthcare tax.

This time, though, it’s fellow Democrats who are balking. The fate of the transportation tax remains unclear, even though Brown and lawmakers have vowed to put the plan up for a vote before leaving Sacramento for spring recess on Thursday night.

"Part of the frustration that you’re hearing is that it’s a self-imposed deadline," said Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), who served in Brown’s administration from 2011 to 2015. "My perspective is that people want to be reflective about how we handle a big change, and so we want to make sure we’re checking in with our constituents — and this doesn’t leave much time."

This week’s deadline was set by Brown, who hoped to seize the moment after private negotiations produced the latest version of a long-term transportation funding plan.

The measure would generate $5.2 billion annually during its first decade, money that would be used to whittle down a backlog of road, highway and bridge repairs that the Brown administration estimates has grown to cost $130 billion.

To do that, the legislation would increase California’s gasoline excise tax 12 cents per gallon — the first increase since 1994 — bringing it to 30 cents. Another portion of excise taxes would be raised under a formula that would include annual inflation adjustments. Excise taxes on diesel would go up 20 cents per gallon, and diesel sales taxes would also rise.

The proposal would also create a new “transportation improvement” vehicle fee, on top of existing fees. The annual fee would range from $25 to $175, depending on the assessed value of the personal car or truck. Zero-emission vehicles that don’t use fossil fuels would be subject to a $100 annual fee beginning in 2020.

Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers roll out a major new plan to fund transportation projects »

In all, Brown estimates the various tax and fee increases will mean the average California motorist would pay an extra $10 a month.

“It’s a hell of a good deal,” Brown said at an event Tuesday in Riverside. “Now is the time.”

For legislative Republicans, the plan’s selling points — money for state and local governments to fix roadways, bridges and culverts — were outweighed by the cost to taxpayers. GOP lawmakers complained about the previous decade’s state budget deals that diverted transportation funds, though they were enacted on bipartisan votes. And Republicans have suggested boosting transportation funds with proceeds from California’s auction of greenhouse gas credits.

Brown’s own party, on the other hand, has remained divided. Some key holdouts, such as Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), pointedly noted they did not receive a direct appeal from the governor, raising questions about whether he should have worked earlier to personally line up the votes.

"I haven’t gotten a personal phone call from the governor, no," as of midday Wednesday, Salas said. Brown ultimately spoke to Salas on Wednesday afternoon.

Others spoke with Brown too. The governor spoke privately with two Democratic senators who remained uncommitted Wednesday. One of them, state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), was Brown’s former campaign manager.

Assemblyman Matt Dababneh (D-Encino) said he raised his constituents’ concerns about costs with Brown in a Wednesday caucus meeting of Democrats.

"The governor is very genuine. I feel like he made a really humble case based on his experience in government, which is far greater than any of ours," Dababneh said.

The eleventh-hour scramble for votes exposed the fractures between Democrats — though unlike in past legislative battles, many of the transportation fault lines are more regional than ideological.

The informally organized but powerful group of business-friendly Democrats, who self-identify as moderates, were not planning to vote as a bloc on the package. Some "mods," including Oakley Democratic Assemblyman Jim Frazier, who helped shepherd the proposal, are on board. Others including Salas, remained on the fence in the final hours of negotiations.

"I’m approaching this as the representative from Bakersfield," said Salas, a co-chair of the moderate group. "I have to think of the fact that in my district, people have to drive a distance to drop their kids off to school. They have to drive a further distance even to go to work. And does this transportation plan take into account the distance that they travel in rural areas?"

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