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California Leaders Push For Gas Tax Votes For Road Repairs

Traffic on a San Diego freeway is shown in this file photo, Nov. 22, 2011.
Associated Press
Traffic on a San Diego freeway is shown in this file photo, Nov. 22, 2011.

Democratic legislative leaders were hopeful but making no promises of success Thursday as lawmakers prepared to vote on a $5-billion-a-year boost in California's gas and vehicle taxes to pay for major road repairs.

"Talks are very productive. They're still fluid," said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon as he rushed in shirt sleeves from the office of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

He and other leaders, including Gov. Jerry Brown, were hurrying to line up the two-thirds votes needed to pass the tax increases in votes scheduled for Thursday afternoon, before lawmakers adjourn for their weeklong spring break.

RELATED: Governor Makes Plea To Secure Tax Hike For Road Repairs

The governor and top legislative leaders pressed all week to convince fellow Democrats to support the measure but faced mounting opposition from environmentalists and anti-tax crusaders.

"I'm working hard and it's not done yet — not done yet," Brown said as he left an annual memorial service for victims of crime. "I'm energized and doing everything I can to make sure that California climbs out of this big hole — ruts and broken bridges and all the rest."

Unless he can convince a handful of Republicans to break ranks, Brown will need near universal support from Democrats to muster the two-thirds supermajority required to raise taxes.

"We have a long day ahead of us and so we're continuing our dialogues, which have been very fruitful as of now," de Leon told The Associated Press. He said he was "very hopeful still."

RELATED: Gas Tax Hike Funds $52 Billion Plan To Fix California Roads

Republicans have blasted the plan to ask for more money from taxpayers in a state that already has a high tax burden. Some have questioned why the state would raise taxes to repair its existing infrastructure without adding more lanes of traffic as the population swells.

"You've got people who are stuck in traffic, and yet this new $5 billion in taxes isn't going to solve any of those problems," said Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley.

Republicans say the state can fund road repairs with existing funds — an idea Democrats say would require cuts to education and social services that they're unwilling to make.

Brown's pleas capped a week of cajoling and prodding lawmakers. He held rallies in the districts of undecided legislators and made unusual appearances before two legislative committees.

Contractors and construction unions blanketed television, radio and social media with ads promoting the plan, some targeting lawmakers still on the fence. The ads cost about $1 million, said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the Fix Our Roads Coalition.

The proposal aims to address a $59 billion backlog in deferred maintenance on state highways and $78 billion on local streets and roads. It's projected to raise $52.4 billion over 10 years, much of it to fix potholes and repair bridges but some for public transit and biking and walking trails.

It would raise gas taxes by 12 cents a gallon — a 43 percent increase — and diesel taxes from 16 cents per gallon to 36 cents. Diesel sales taxes would also rise.

Drivers would also face a new annual fee to be paid with their vehicle registration, ranging from $25 to $175 depending on the value of their vehicle. The taxes and fees would rise each year with inflation.

To win support from truckers, who face a big increase in taxes, Brown and legislative leaders agreed to restrict future regulations on greenhouse gas emissions related to commercial trucks.

An association representing the state's 35 air pollution control districts sent a letter to lawmakers saying the bill could impede regulations that indirectly affect truckers, such as restrictions on emissions at ports, warehouses, railyards and airports.

The bill, SB1, is the first major legislation that must comply with an initiative approved last year by voters that requires lawmakers to publish legislation for 72 hours before voting on it.

The push for approval created a sense of urgency barely a week after Brown released the negotiated proposal alongside Rendon, D-Paramount, and de Leon, D-Los Angeles.

While the agreement was only released last week, the idea of raising gas taxes and vehicle fees has been the subject of discussion for months, said Sen. Jim Beall, a San Jose Democrat who has been working on the transportation bill for two years.

"They're counting votes," Beall said as lawmakers gathered at the Capitol. "It's close right now — close."

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