Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

What's At Stake For San Diego In Proposition 6 Gas Tax Vote

A car drives over a bridge on Pacific Highway deemed structurally deficient by the federal government, Oct. 17, 2018.
Andrew Bowen
A car drives over a bridge on Pacific Highway deemed structurally deficient by the federal government, Oct. 17, 2018.
What's At Stake For San Diego In Proposition 6 Gas Tax Vote
What's At Stake For San Diego In Proposition 6 Gas Tax Vote GUESTS: Kiana Valentine, senior legislative representative, California State Association of Counties Richard Rider, chairman, San Diego Tax Fighters

Proposition 6 on the November ballot would repeal last year's increase to the state gas tax. The initiative could be one of the most consequential this year as the state struggles to repair its crumbling roads and bridges. Hey PBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen says there's plenty at stake for San Diego. Yes a few dozen supporters of Proposition 6 rallied in Mission Bay last week at the kickoff of a statewide bus tour. The face of the campaign is conservative talk radio host Carl Demayo. So what I need each and every one of you to do. Is commit today to taking. A number of lawn signs take as many as you can. Take him back to your neighborhoods given your neighborhood your neighbors your give given the most popular person on the street I can tell you right now. Everyone wants a Prop 6 would repeal a law passed last year that raised the state gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and increased vehicle registration fees. Prop 6 would also require voter approval for future gas tax or vehicle fee increases. DeMayo says Caltrans and state lawmakers can't be trusted to spend the money effectively. We want our roads fixed. A yes vote on Prop 6 is the only way to really fix the roads because what we're saying to the politicians is we know you're lying to us. We know that you already have enough money and we're not giving you a single penny more until you fix our roads with the existing money. More on how the state spends gas tax revenue in just a minute. The groups fighting against DeMaio to keep the gas tax hike include conservative groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and liberal interests like organized labor and environmental groups. I try to ask Demayo about his opponents but he quickly dismisses them. They're all Sacramento interests. Sacramento interests the Sacramento interests and the Sacramento interests who are feeding of the trout into the Sacramento interests. If you're a lobbyist or a politician you love raising taxes. If you're a member of a working family you realize the cost of living in California is too high and you don't want to throw good money after bad. That's the real difference between the two sides here. So why did the state legislature raise the gas tax in the first place. While the gas tax is a flat per gallon fee it's not a percentage like the sales tax before last year the state hadn't raised the gas tax since 1994. But inflation didn't stop meaning gas tax revenue is spread thinner and thinner. There were also more cars on the road nowadays driving longer distances adding to the stress on our infrastructure and cars are getting more fuel efficient hybrids and electric vehicles contribute just as much to the wear and tear on roads and bridges. But they pay far less into the gas tax fund which pays for repairs. This particular bridge was built in 1933. Catherine Hill works for the League of California Cities which opposes Prop 6 meter at a bridge on Pacific Highway that goes over the San Diego River and Fryer's road. It's one of more than 60 Bridges in San Diego County deemed structurally deficient by the federal government. It's one example of the backlog of infrastructure repairs that Hill says Prop 6 would exacerbate. Currently the funding that is going through that is in jeopardy of Proposition 6 passes is earmarked specifically for transportation funding. It's money that we haven't had before and it's money to help alleviate the 130 billion dollars in unmet needs that the entire state has the extra gas tax money is paying for street resurfacing increased public transit operations and highway improvements across San Diego County Hill says with a brief interruption by a passing train. If Prop 6 passes a number of those projects would suddenly be halted. The money's just gone. There's no. Plan B. The next day to keep those projects going. And we're back to square one. We're going backwards. We're going to have to figure out how we're going to fund these needs. As. We're trying to figure out how we need to. And keep the trains running on time. Our infrastructure is going to continue to crumble. We have more than enough money to fix roads. The politicians would just actually put the money into the roads. The state does have controls on how it can spend gas tax money. Voters in June approved Prop 69 which locks in the extra gas tax money for transportation uses only Demayo dismisses that and hopes discontent over gas prices will carry his side to victory. Andrew Bowen Kate CBS News for more on the debate over Prop 6 I spoke with Kianna Valentine senior legislative representative for the California State Association of Counties representing no on the Prop 6. And Richard Reiter chairman of the San Diego tax fighters representing yes on Prop 6. First question to you Richard. Gas tax supporters say California's roads bridges dams its crucial infrastructure is in critical need of repair. That kind of repair takes money. California's original gas tax used to be enough. But with all the hybrids and electric vehicles on the road not enough gas tax revenue is coming in the legislature decided on raising the gas tax to fix the infrastructure. How do we fix California's roads without this tax. This is a reduction in the gas tax that's collected about 20 percent less so 25 percent. So there's plenty of money. And here's the interesting part that nobody seems to realize after this tax is repealed. And I think it will be. We are going to be a the second highest gas tax state in the nation. That's what it was before the tax went up all these years where's the money gone. Why haven't we been spending on what I agree is a crucial problem which is roads and bridges safety congestion. Those are the issues that people are concerned about. Instead we spent the money on just about everything but roads. The overwhelming majority of the money has been spent elsewhere. Up to and including putting it into the general fund and then they come back and say gosh you guys have given us enough money. First kinna I'd like you to respond to Richard's response. I disagree with his perspective on the root cause of the problem. The gas tax hasn't been increased since 1994 and since that time inflation increases in fuel efficiency hybrid vehicles electric vehicles as you mentioned have eroded the purchasing power of our existing revenue by over 50 percent. You add population growth you add rising construction costs. We have heavy trucks coming in and out of the major ports in the state that do a ton of damage to our roads. So it hasn't been an issue of mismanaging the revenues. We've already had in fact I believe 100 percent of our gas tax revenues have gone to roads. Fifty six percent of those existing revenues went to the state highway system for critical repairs and maintenance. 44 percent of those revenues were directed to every single city and county. On a monthly apportionment basis so this is a matter of inflation of changing circumstances in California and just needing to double down and ensure that we are able to provide Californians a safe and efficient multimodal transportation network. Some of the argument for Prop 6 to repeal the gas tax is that this tax hits middle income people with long commutes and lower income people the hardest. What is the state doing about that. A few thoughts. I am completely sympathetic to the costs of living in every community in California. My husband and I have three jobs and we're trying to raise a family. It is more costly in the long run to not fix our infrastructure now. My organization helped author a study that was released last week that found if Prop 6 is successful the backlog on the local system alone will grow by 12 billion dollars. Now Richard Prop 6 would also require future gas tax increases to get approval from voters. The last time California voters directly approved a gas tax increase was a 1937. So in essence doesn't mean that the gas tax revenue of the state gets will just continue to shrink. It may but again that's left to the voters. It's not a high barrier to get over for people who want to propose higher taxes. It's simple majority. If we do it locally that's considered special tax we'll have to get a two thirds majority to raise the tax locally. But on a state level simple majority it's not a difficult thing to do. And if most of the voters think it's a bad idea well we are a democracy. So I don't have a problem with that at all. I think you have to make a good enough case to convince the voters to raise the tax. There's a case perhaps to be made but I'd have to see a lot more efficiencies and re prioritizing the money used to be that the State Government used to use part of the general fund for transportation. They really don't do that anymore and I think that's a mistake. The problem we have is essentially a lot of this money is there trying to free up state money for other expenses primarily labor costs and particularly pensions. So they are no longer providing transportation. I don't expect them to pay for the roads but I do expect them to pay for high speed rail beautification projects mitigation spending that sort of thing that should be taken care of by the general fund. It's not a gas tax function. How do you convince voters that they should pay more to drive their vehicle on California roads. I think the best way to convey a no vote on Proposition 6 is to tell them what's exactly at stake. That's five billion dollars annually statewide. That is in jeopardy. Cities and counties have identified over six thousand five hundred local projects in just the first two years of funding that are currently underway in every single community in the state of California. In total the San Diego region will get one point sixty four billion dollars to help turn their infrastructure around turn your infrastructure around. Over the next decade when they realize that those projects are on the chopping block if this money goes away we think that they will reject Proposition 6. Richard I'm going to have a question. I've seen all these these talk about we're going to get rid of you know they bring up to 6000 projects and the inference is we're going to reduce 6000 projects. No no we're cutting the spending back and trying to get them to reprice or ties other spending from other areas. So it's not the idea that we're not going to be able to repair the roads and so it's not true. And they've been overselling this idea that everything is going to come to a crashing halt. If we if we do this because in counties we're not doing these projects they may have been in the works but could be 5 10 20 years away if Prop 6 passes this money goes away. The same situation happens cities and counties aren't just sitting on existing gas tax revenues spending it on alternative purposes. To be clear the Constitution dedicates these revenues to transportation. They are accountable. Your city and county your cities and county here in San Diego have to adopt project lists every year at a public hearing telling taxpayers exactly how they intend to spend their portion of revenues. And then at the end of the year they have to file an expenditure report as well and make that publicly available. I've been speaking with Kianna Valentine senior legislative representative for the California State Association of Counties and with Richard Reiter chairman of the San Diego tax fighters.

Proposition 6, a measure to repeal last year's increase to the state gas tax, could be one of the most consequential issues on the November ballot, as the state and local governments struggle to repair crumbling roads and bridges.

The state legislature last year passed a law, called SB 1, that raised the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon. It also raised vehicle fees by between $25 and $175, depending on the value of the car, and in 2020 it will begin adjusting the gas tax to inflation.

Prop 6 would roll back the increase to the gas tax and vehicle fees, easing the direct costs of car ownership but eliminating billions of dollars in funding for transportation infrastructure statewide. It would also make future gas tax increases far more difficult to pass by requiring the approval of voters, on top of the two-thirds majority needed in the state Assembly and Senate, plus the governor's signature, which are already required by current law.

What’s At Stake For San Diego In Proposition 6 Gas Tax Vote

Why raise the gas tax?

The main reason behind the state's gas tax increase was a frustration with the pace of road repair. California has an estimated backlog of $130 billion in transportation infrastructure needs — and a number of factors have contributed to that deficit.

One is inflation. California's gas tax is a flat, per-gallon fee — not a percentage, like the sales tax — and the last time the state raised the gas tax was in 1994. Over the past 24 years, inflation has eaten away at the purchasing power of the state's gas tax revenues. The left-leaning California Budget & Policy Center estimates SB 1 didn't even bring the gas tax back to 1994 levels when adjusting for inflation.

Another factor contributing to the state's infrastructure backlog is the increasing fuel efficiency of cars. Hybrids and electric vehicles contribute just as much to the wear and tear on roads and bridges as conventional automobiles, but their drivers buy less gas, and therefore pay far less in gas taxes. And the state's population growth and trend toward sprawling development have led to more cars on the road driving longer distances, accelerating the decay of the infrastructure they use.

How is the money being spent locally?

San Diego County has been promised a sizable share of the roughly $52 billion the state is expected to collect through SB 1 in the law's first decade. The widening of Interstate 5 in North County was awarded $195 million — one of the largest single funding earmarks in the state.

Half of the annual gas tax funding from SB 1 is distributed by state agencies while the other half has gone directly to cities and counties to spend on local priorities. The city of San Diego is spending all of its local share — about $31.6 million over the previous and current fiscal years — on street resurfacing. Most other cities in the county have done the same.

The state has created a map of projects with SB 1 funding. Other local projects include increased public transit service on the Blue Line trolley, culvert replacements along freeways to prevent flooding and retrofitting of local bridges and freeway overpasses.

The "Yes on 6" campaign is being spearheaded by Carl DeMaio, a local conservative talk radio host and former San Diego city councilman. He rejected the assertion that a vote for Prop 6 would jeopardize infrastructure repairs.

RELATED: How San Diego Fueled California's Gas Tax Repeal Effort

"We want our roads fixed," DeMaio said in an interview after a campaign rally last week. "A yes vote on Prop 6 is the only way to really fix the roads because what we're saying to the politicians is, 'We know you're lying to us. We know that you already have enough money and we're not giving you a single penny more until you fix our roads with the existing money.'"

DeMaio argues the state legislature should focus more on controlling the cost of road repair, and that gas tax revenues are being used for expenses unrelated to transportation. How the state spends gas tax revenue is extremely complex, but it does include things like traffic law enforcement and administrative costs.

The "No on 6" campaign includes some strange bedfellows: both organized labor unions and the traditionally labor-skeptical California Chamber of Commerce and the California Associated General Contractors. Also opposing Prop 6 are environmental groups, public health organizations and police and firefighter unions.

DeMaio dismissed these groups as "Sacramento interests."

RELATED: In Voter Cram Session, AirTalk Breaks Down The Ballot Propositions

"If you're a lobbyist or a politician, you love raising taxes," he said. "If you're a member of a working family, you realize the cost of living in California is too high and you don't want to throw good money after bad. That's the real difference between the two sides here."

Catherine Hill is a regional representative for the League of California Cities, which opposes Prop 6. She said the diversity of the groups opposing Prop 6 reflects a broad consensus that California needs more funding for transportation.

"All of those groups realize that in order for our state to move forward ... we're going to have to invest in our infrastructure," she said. "We're going to have to continue to make sure that our streets and roads are safe, that our bridges are safe, that the infrastructure can be there to move our goods."

Hill said if Prop 6 passes, the projects in San Diego County with new gas tax funding would suddenly be put on hold or canceled.

"There's no 'Plan B' the next day to keep those projects going," she said. "As we're trying to figure out how we meet these needs and keep the train running on time, then our infrastructure is going to continue to crumble."

What's At Stake For San Diego In Proposition 6 Gas Tax Vote
Proposition 6, a measure to repeal last year's increase to the state gas tax, could be one of the most consequential issues on the November ballot. The measure could ease the direct cost of car ownership, but would also eliminate billions in new transportation funding.