California’s expensive Infrastructure gambit

201610_california_golden_fleece_award_caltransIn recent years California Democrats have been quick to brand their latest initiative as groundbreaking or visionary, thus a statewide $15 minimum wage was the result of a “landmark deal,” Senate President Kevin de Leon similarly praised SB 350’s renewable power provisions, and at a signing ceremony for the Golden State’s renewed climate change law Governor Jerry Brown said he hoped it “sends a message across the country.” What a coup it is for Sacramento to lead the way again and steal Donald Trump’s thunder by passing and signing a 10-year, $52 billion infrastructure bill before Capitol Hill Republicans managed to move a projected $1 trillion dollar investment beyond the drawing board.

As with any big, ambitious project the devil is in the details — lawmakers expect to remedy a $137 billion backlog of highway and street maintenance by raising taxes. Under SB 1 gas taxes will go up 12 cents per gallon for petrol and 20 cents for diesel; annual registration fees will rise by an average of $38, and a yearly $100 surcharge will be imposed on electric car owners. The Jesuit seminarian-turned-Governor described the measure simply, he equated it with “fixing the roof on your house.” Critics like Assemblyman Vince Fong disagreed and demanded guarantees that any money raised would be spent as promised, entirely reasonable considering California gas taxes are among the highest in the nation and its roads still need this kind of expensive attention.

The bill’s sponsors must have known they were already dealing with a trust deficit, so they included two provisions that guarantee a bit of good PR: one would charge an inspector general with overseeing how money raised by SB 1’s taxes and fees is being spent. The clincher is a proposed amendment to California’s constitution that would supposedly make oversight redundant, but would have to get past the sternest, most fickle critics around. These sound like tough, no-nonsense measures, but they lack a meaningful way of ensuring compliance; an inspector general can issue a report detailing violations, but cannot sanction scofflaws — only voters can do that. The proposed amendment, assuming it does pass, is a good-faith measure that relies on compliant lawmakers to ensure its effectiveness. This is where voter’s whims and the Golden State’s true-blue leadership come into play.

When they’re not causing lane closures and traffic jams highway improvement projects are fairly popular because nobody likes potholes, but the new taxes sometimes needed to pay for them aren’t. By itself this wouldn’t mean much, people would grumble about added expenses the same way they gripe about gas prices and keep filling up at the local Arco. But California is $1.6 billion in debt and has an estimated $241.3 billion in unfunded pension liabilities; none of this has deterred lawmakers, who have drawn up plans for more new spending. There are no cost estimates attached to a proposed single-payer health care bill — even the governor is trying to figure out how advocates would pay for it — but it’s a sign of priorities in Sacramento, even if the necessary tax increases would likely stall the Healthy California Act before it can get out of the garage.

Anthony Rendon’s “Degrees not Debt” bill doesn’t have any such problems: the Assembly Speaker’s proposal would take the “boldest step in the nation toward making college debt-free” by covering tuition, books, and living expenses for an estimated 400,000 students. The price tag? Assemblyman Rocky Chavez is expecting the new scholarship, expanded Success Grants, and a tuition-free year of community college to cost the Golden State $6 billion over its first five years. The measure’s proponents say a tax increase will not be necessary, which is key because a supermajority vote would be needed to slip one through the legislature; they’re counting on a $2.8 billion surplus forecast by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

There could be trouble if Governor Jerry Brown’s revised budget does not deliver the expected funds. A shortfall isn’t likely to deter the California Faculty Association, their union allies, or a group known as Reclaim California Higher Education, who are pressing reluctant Democrats to take action. If lawmakers in a deep-blue state like this one don’t get the “contributions” they’re expecting from middle-income families and are forced to choose between accepting the praise that would come from aiding indebted students and keeping an existing commitment to road-weary commuters my money is on the aspiring alumni — voters really love them.

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April 20, 2017 · 8:51 pm

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