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Contra Costa needs more road capacity, but we don’t need new sales taxes to build it

Along with the grandeur of Yosemite and the beauty of the California coast, there’s our state’s epic rush hours. But sales taxes on the Nov. 8 ballot, like Contra Costa’s Measure X, aren’t the way to solve them.

Measure X would add 0.5% to local sales tax rates to fund a variety of transportation projects around the county. But it would raise something other than revenue — like concerns about equity and efficiency.

Measure X would hike the overall tax rate in El Cerrito to 10.50% and in Richmond to 10.00%. Working class people in these neighborhoods – many of whom do not have cars – will be expected to pay more for clothing and school supplies to subsidize the commutes of affluent Tesla drivers living in Blackhawk and other wealthy communities.

Because Tesla’s and other Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) don’t use gas, their owners don’t pay the gasoline taxes that traditionally fund road construction and maintenance. The increased popularity of BEVs has contributed to the sharp decline in gas tax revenues collected by the state and distributed to counties. This reduction in gas tax funding is one reason county officials are asking voters to double the transportation sales tax from its current 0.5% level.

But by funding transportation improvements from general tax revenue, we are subsidizing drivers who most often travel the highways in single-occupancy vehicles. A better option is to fund highway improvements through toll revenues. Although we are starting to see toll lanes in Contra Costa County, much more can be done.

In Orange County, public agencies operate four toll roads as well as four express lanes in the median of SR-91. Agencies maintain these arteries with toll revenues; no taxpayer funding is required. The SR-91 express lanes, opened 20 years ago, have been a model for express lane projects elsewhere around the nation. The nearest example to us is a stretch of I-680 in Alameda County that includes a High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane – one that can be used by carpools for free and by solo drivers for a fee that varies with the level of congestion. In California, express lane tolls are paid with FasTrak, just like bridge tolls.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is converting a carpool lane on I-680 between Walnut Creek and San Ramon to an HOT lane. But beyond conversions, drivers also need new lanes on portions of I-80, I-680, SR-24 and SR-4. Under Assembly Bill 194, these new lanes can be financed by bonds backed by toll revenues – reducing or eliminating the need for tax subsidies.

Budgeted costs and the risks of cost overruns (like the one experienced by the Bay Bridge replacement project) can be limited by contracting with private firms to design and build new express lanes. This is the approach the Orange County Transportation Authority is taking for new toll lanes it is adding to I-405, a project now out for bid.

Other states are leveraging the private sector even more. In the Miami suburbs, the Florida Department of Transportation has recently added three tolled, reversible express lanes to I-595. The successful project was not only designed and built privately, but the concessionaire is also operating and maintaining the new lanes.

In the Washington, D.C. suburbs, an Australian company owns and operates express lanes in the Capital Beltway, I-495. The same company also owns 13 tollways in Australia.

By correctly pricing our highways, we can attract private capital and the toll revenues needed to maintain and expand them. By asking drivers to fund the highways they use, we can relieve the burden on the county’s often disadvantaged sales taxpayers.

Teacher Unions and Their “Fair Share” Fetish

According to the California Federation of Teachers, taxed-to-death Golden Staters still don’t pay enough.

While teachers unions continue to slam the wealthy for not paying their fair share of taxes, it is the finger-pointers who are really the avaricious ones. Like spoiled children who just can’t get enough candy, they have no sense as to when to stop. Leading the brat campaign this time is the California Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two state teachers unions. Its website proclaims,

Prop 30 stopped the bleeding in state revenue, but we will continue to see anti-tax, anti-government forces attempt to undermine the public sector. When you hear these people say, “We don’t have the money to provide adequate public services,” or “California has a spending problem,” they are wrong. We have a revenue problem.

Stopped the bleeding? Hardly. It’s the taxpayers who have been hemorrhaging and the higher tax bill is extracting even more blood. Nevertheless, CFT sees the passage of Prop. 30 as just the first step in solving the state’s “revenue problem.”

In fact, when Prop. 30 became law, it left California with the highest sales and income tax rates in the country. Our nation-leading state sales tax rate of 7.25 percent went up to 7.5 percent. And the top marginal personal income tax rate which was 10.3 percent – third highest in the country – is now number one at 13.3 percent – a 29.13 percent increase.

Yet, CFT wants more.

We have a tax system that does not ask those who have the most wealth and resources to pay their fair share—even with passage of Prop 30, wealth and income have been massively redistributed in California and the nation over the past three decades in the wrong direction.

So, CFT is suggesting that the wealthy among us are getting away scot-free, but a look at national numbers tells a different story. A report issued by the Congressional Budget Office in 2012 shows that the top 1 percent of income earners paid 39 percent of federal individual income taxes in 2009, while earning 13 percent of the income.

Hence, it’s clear that the rich are already paying considerably more than their “fair share.” The CBO also reports that “the top 20 percent of income earners (those earning over $74,000) paid 94 percent of federal individual income taxes, 85 percent more than the share of national income they earned.

CFT would also have us think that public education is underfunded, but as Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson pointed out recently:

Over the past four decades, real per pupil spending in California has roughly doubled. In dollar terms, Californians are spending $27 billion more today on K-12 education than they did in 1974, when Gov. Jerry Brown was first elected to office—and that is after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation.

And what have we gotten for our increase in spending? A look at our latest National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores tells the tragic story. For example, on the most recent 4th grade math test, California students came in 45th nationally; in science, the same 4th graders scored higher than only Mississippi.

Perhaps when CFT and their ilk are making their “fair share” accusations, they may want to reconsider. In 2011, the California Teachers Association – CFT’s bigger brother – issued a press release (H/T Mike Antonucci) which announced its “support of the nationwide ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement for tax fairness and against corporate greed.” It goes on to say, “…a stable tax structure begins with everyone paying their fair share.”

Paying their fair share? Everyone?

The unions really have hit a new low here. According its latest available income tax form, CTA took in $185,222,341 in 2010. As a 501(c)(5), the union has a special tax exempt status with the IRS which is accorded to “Labor, Agricultural, and Horticultural Organizations.” So the union paid $0 in income taxes. (By comparison, CFT pulled in a measly $23,226,311 and also paid no tax.)

Our teachers unions – private corporations – take in over $200 million every year in forced union dues, pay not a penny in income tax, and yet want the rest of us to pay our “fair share.”

Have hypocrisy and hubris ever been more blatantly demonstrated?

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.