TAXPORTATION: Profligate Waste Negates Justification for Transportation Tax Hike

Part One:  California’s Highways – A Legacy of Mismanagement and Over-regulation.

A personal digression: My father was head of the Iowa Department of Transportation (then called the Iowa Highway Commission) in the late ’60s and early ’70s before he was appointed by President Ford to serve as Deputy Federal Highway Administrator. (Of course, he lost that job when Jimmy Carter became president, but he continued to work in the private sector for a transportation think tank). When I was in high school, I remember him coming home from an ASHTO conference. That organization, the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, was a pretty well respected group and still is. He was complaining bitterly about what was going on in California. I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that the new head of California’s transportation agency, called CalTrans, had been taken over by a certifiably crazy person (with no background in transportation policy) by the name of Adriana Gianturco. According to my father, in the 1950s and ’60s, California had the best transportation agency in the entire world. But all that changed with the election of a new, anti-growth, small-is-beautiful governor by the name of Jerry Brown.

Now, fast forward 40 years. Governor Brown, version 2.0, proposes a budget that assumes a big increase in transportation taxes and fees. The California Legislature shouldn’t just say no, it should say hell no.

Where to start? First, let’s take judicial notice of the fact that California is already a high tax state with the highest income tax rate and the highest state sales tax in America. But more relevant for the issue at hand, we also have the highest fuel costs in the nation. This is because of both the 4th highest excise tax on fuel and the fact that refineries are burdened with additional costs to comply with California’s environmental regulations.

The high cost to drive in California might be understandable if we were getting value for our tax dollars. But we aren’t. A big problem is that Caltrans is dysfunctional, plain and simple. It has never fully recovered from the days when the agency was effectively destroyed by Gianturco. A report by the California State Auditor just a couple of months ago concluded that a primary responsibility of Caltrans – maintenance of our highways – is not being executed in a manner that is even close to being efficient or competent. Senator John Moorlach, the only CPA currently serving in the California legislature, reacted saying that “This audit reinforces the fact that our bad roads are not a result of a lack of funding. They’re a result of a lack of competence at Caltrans.” Moreover, a report by the Legislative Analyst concluded that Caltrans is overstaffed by 3,500 employees costing California taxpayers over a half billion dollars a year. All this compels the obvious question: Why, for goodness sake, do we want to give these people even more money?

Another unneeded and costly practice consists of project labor agreements for transportation construction projects. These pro-union policies shut out otherwise competent companies from bidding on projects resulting in California taxpayers shelling out as high as 25% more than they should for building highways and bridges.

Finally, California’s environmental requirements are legendary for their inefficiency while also doing little for the environment. Exhibit A in this foolishness is Governor Brown’s incomprehensible pursuit of the ill-fated high speed rail project. Not only has the project failed to live up to any of the promises made to voters, it is currently being kept alive only by virtue of the state’s diversion of “cap and trade” funds which are supposed to be expended on projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But in the Kafkaesque world of California transportation policies, the LAO has concluded that the construction of the HSR project actually produces a net increase in emissions, at least for the foreseeable future.

No one disputes the dire need for improvements in California’s transportation infrastructure. But imposing draconian taxes and higher registration fees that serve only to punish the middle class while wasting billions on projects that don’t help getting Californians get to work or school cannot and should not be tolerated. Legislators who present themselves to voters as fiscally responsible need to understand that a vote for higher transportation taxes will engender a very angry response from their constituents.

Part Two:  Redirecting Existing Revenue Provides Plenty of Money for Highway Improvements

Last week’s column presented the case for strong opposition to any new transportation taxes in California. But on Thursday, the Executive Director of Transportation California, Will Kempton, published a response in Fox and Hounds, a California political blog run by Joel Fox, which repeated the need for higher taxes.

Will Kempton is a respected transportation expert who agrees with the central premise of my original column. That is, that California’s transportation crisis can no longer be ignored. California has a transportation and road repair maintenance backlog that some estimate will total $58 billion over the next ten years. It is also true that, thanks to alternative vehicles and more fuel efficient cars (and never mind the infamous “gas tax swap”) that fuel tax revenues have become more volatile year-over-year.

So, now that we’ve agreed on the need, how do we deal with it? Mr. Kempton argues that we have no choice but to raise taxes. Not only do we disagree, but it is abundantly clear that practically all of this backlog can be funded using existing General Fund resources. Consider:

  • Nearly $1 billion a year of truck weight fees are being diverted from road repair to paying off transportation bond debt. Total: $10 billion over ten years.
  • Nearly $9 billion in bonds for high speed rail can be diverted for road construction. (And if voter approval is deemed necessary, that measure passes in a heartbeat).
  • Currently, California spends only 20 percent of its $10 billion General Fund transportation budget on road maintenance. Especially with General Fund revenue at record levels, a boost to 50 percent does not seem excessive: Total: $30 billion over ten years.
  • Currently, $500 million in $3 billion worth of cap-and-trade funding goes to road maintenance. Doubling that amount adds $5 billion over ten years.

The grand total of these reforms is $54 billion over ten years. Granted, not all of these things can be done overnight and the first two items will likely require statewide voter approval. But the Legislature still has plenty of time to qualify a constitutional amendment for the November ballot. And obviously, placing a greater General Fund emphasis on transportation projects will require that we figure out how to prioritize our resources better in the face of a record $122 billion budget.

Let’s be honest. It is really the word “prioritize” that is at issue here. Some of these reforms will be easier to implement than others, but unless we engage them head on, which hasn’t happened in the Legislature, how can we ever hope to solve this problem? Taxpayers should refuse to accept the incessant call for higher taxes when relatively simple reforms that could add tens of billions of dollars of funding to our roads, without raising taxes, are ignored. How can we discuss a punitive and regressive gas tax increase when common-sense legislation by State Senator John Moorlach to privatize a small portion of CalTrans projects, or to  establish a pilot project to have county transportation agencies assume projects from CalTrans, are quickly rejected in their first policy committee?

We agree with Kempton that the status quo is no longer acceptable. But there are a myriad of fiscal and policy changes that are viable and should be discussed and implemented. And until legislative Democrats, the transportation community, labor and environmentalists are willing to even come to the table, why should the burden be on California motorists to pay higher taxes?

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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