Give Voters a Voice on Transportation Taxes

By Jon Coupal, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

***Editor’s Note: The following article is one viewpoint on the repeal effort of the Road Repair and Accountability Act. On Feb. 22, an opposing viewpoint was published in the article “Road Repair and Accountability Act Provides Meaningful Relief for California Drivers”.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is a member of a broad-based coalition seeking to roll back last year’s gas and car tax hikes and require that any future increases be approved by voters in a statewide election. The measure, Voter Approval for Increases in the Gas and Car Tax, is targeted for the November 2018 ballot.

Our starting point, as it is with all discussions of taxes in California, is whether any higher taxes are necessary. We already have the highest income tax rate in America, the highest state sales tax rate, the highest corporate income tax rate west of the Mississippi and the second highest fuel tax. And even with Proposition 13, we rank 17th out of 50 states in per capita property tax collections. Virtually all other states are able to build and maintain their roads with a tax burden at a fraction of what it is in California.

It is also important to note that the proposed initiative does not “repeal” the entirety of either the gas or car tax. In fact, even if this measure were to pass, California will still be in the top five of all states in both taxes.

The rollback of the gas and car tax is also consistent with Governor Brown’s previous promise that he would not support any new taxes without voter approval. The Voter Approval initiative simply holds the Governor to his word.

Support for the Voter Approval initiative should in no way be construed as opposition to adequate funding for roads. Indeed, the opposite is true. For decades, taxpayer groups have pointed out that existing transportation dollars were being wrongfully diverted to other purposes. For example, one billion dollars in annual truck weight fees that were supposed to repair our roads were diverted to pay off general obligation bond debt. And even when the annual bond payments were made, the rest of the truck weight fees were placed into the General Fund to the tune of about $1.4 billion over the last ten years.

Here’s another question to which taxpayers are entitled a truthful answer: How is it that General Fund spending has gone up $36 billion over the last six years with not a cent going for transportation?

Another beef we have with the gas and car tax increase is that it does little, if anything, to relieve congestion. The LAO estimates that only about $150 million out of $5.2 billion will go to additional roads.

The last complaint our coalition has with the massive car tax increase is the abject lack of meaningful reforms. Nothing has been done to address the overstaffing of Caltrans which the LAO estimates costs taxpayer $1 billion annually. Likewise, there are no labor reforms (either limiting Project Labor Agreements or providing for contracting out); no CEQA reforms, and 30% of the new money can be used for non-highway purposes such as research, rail, transit and bike paths.

Getting serious about transportation policy in California means first rolling back last year’s tax increases. Let’s force our political leadership to come back to the voters with better policies and, if higher taxes are called for, let them justify it and bring real reforms to the table.

Jon Coupal is the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The opinions in this article are presented in the spirit of spurring discussion and reflect those of the author and not necessarily the Treasurer, his office or the State of California.