Newsom takes bipartisan criticism after canceling 3 road projects

Eleven months after leading a successful campaign against a ballot measure that would have repealed fuel tax hikes approved by the Legislature in 2017, Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing bipartisan criticism over his administration’s decision to cancel three road projects in the Central Valley and San Luis Obispo County.

Newsom has rejected the criticism that he had engaged in a “bait and switch” because he previously emphasized to voters in 2018 that at least 60 percent of the $5.2 billion generated annually by the 2017 tax hikes would go to roads and bridges, as specified in Senate Bill 1.

But his Sept. 20 executive order directed state transportation officials “to leverage the more than $5 billion in annual … spending for construction, operations and maintenance to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and to “reduce congestion through innovative strategies designed to encourage people to shift from cars to other modes of transportation.” 

Soon after, Caltrans – citing Newsom’s order – said the three road projects had been subject to “deletion” from a list of scheduled work at a savings of $32.5 million. It also said other road projects had been reduced in scope, creating a total savings of $61.3 million “to be held in reserve for priority rail projects and other priorities aligned with [the governor’s] executive order.”

Assemblyman Rendon says voters remembered ‘clear promises’

This led to criticism not only from Republican officials in the Central Valley and San Luis Obispo but from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood.

Gas taxes were raised “with some clear promises … that this money would be used … almost exclusively for roads and repairs,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Now is not the time to go back on those promises.”

But Newsom said he would honor Senate Bill 1 exactly as it was written and said critics shouldn’t “conflate” his Sept. 20 executive order with the state’s “locked in” commitment to fix roads and bridges.

Nevertheless, Democrats in the Legislature have good reason to be wary about fallout from their support of the 2017 gas tax hike. One of their few setbacks in recent years as they have established lopsided majorities in the Assembly and Senate came in June 2018 when state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, was recalled easily after a campaign that focused on his vote for the gas tax hike.

But the potency of the issue has been evident longer than that. In 2002, 69 percent of state voters backed Proposition 42, which made it more difficult for gas taxes to be shifted for use on general needs. In 2006, 77 percent of state voters supported Proposition 1A, which added even more restrictions.

Gas tax revenue diverted to general uses in 2010

Yet these measures were unable to block Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature from raiding gas taxes again in 2010. Facing a huge budget deficit after the Great Recession had led to a nearly 20 percent drop in state revenue, the Republican governor and Democratic lawmakers and their lawyers came up with a plan to end state sales taxes on gasoline while sharply increasing excise taxes. Because the “gas tax swap” didn’t increase revenue, it was allowed to be enacted on a simple majority vote.

And since there were far fewer restrictions on gas excise taxes than gas sales taxes, lawmakers were able to take $1.8 billion in annual gas excise revenue for general uses.

Senate Bill 1 in 2017 eliminated the law setting up the tax swap.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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