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California Legislature Approves Gas Tax Hike; Bill Goes To Gov. Brown

SACRAMENTO ( — California lawmakers on Thursday approved a $5-billion-a-year plan to boost California's gas and vehicle taxes to pay for major road repairs, handing a victory to Gov. Jerry Brown who has lobbied for years for money to fix crumbling highways and bridges.

Brown and top Democratic lawmakers overcame strong opposition from environmentalists and anti-tax crusaders to muster the two-thirds support required to raise taxes.

"You know how bad our roads are, and the conditions have been made worse by our recent winter weather," said Sen. Jim Beall, a San Jose Democrat who worked on the bill for two years.

Senate Bill 1, the Road Repair & Accountability Act of 2017, would trigger a 20-cent per gallon increase in diesel taxes, a 12-cent per gallon hike in gas taxes and a 5.75 percent increase in diesel sales taxes. Vehicle license fees would be raised an average $38 per vehicle. 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.

The fuel tax hikes will take effect Nov. 1, while the vehicle license fee increase will take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

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

"We aren't taxing champagne and caviar here," said Sen. Ted Gaines, a Republican from El Dorado Hills outside Sacramento. "Transportation is a basic need to live and work and raise a family."

Republicans said the state can fund road repairs with existing funds — an idea Democrats reject, contending it would require cuts to education and social services.

"I don't think there are better options out there," Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, said.

"I think it's outrageous," Liza Tucker with the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog told CBS2 Thursday.

"We are already paying a ton of money, for every gallon of gasoline we are paying a huge 'gouge gap' is what I call it," Tucker said.

Tucker agrees the roads need to be fixed. However, she says the oil companies, not the drivers, need to pick up the tab.

"Consumer Watchdog believes this money needs to come out of the pockets of the oil companies that are just making money hand over fist, and it shouldn't be the consumers that are on the hook for this," Tucker said.

Tucker says California consumers pay more for gas than drivers in any other part of the country, while gasoline producers make more money. She says those extra profits should be taxed to cover the cost of road repairs in the state.

"We're pounding our roads with gas-powered cars that they want us to drive," Tucker said. "Let them pay the expense of fixing those roads."

The evening votes in the Senate and Assembly capped a week of cajoling and arm-twisting by Brown, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon. Contractors and construction unions blanketed television, radio and social media with $1 million of ads promoting the plan and targeting undecided lawmakers.

Brown held rallies in the districts of targeted legislators and made unusual appearances before two legislative committees.

Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres was the only Republican to support the tax hike. Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda was the only Democrat opposed.

"My constituents have told me loud and clear that they want any new taxes to be spent more wisely and effectively," Glazer said in a statement. He lobbied unsuccessfully for a provision that would ban strikes by Bay Area Rapid Transit workers.

Cannella said he voted for the bill after Brown and Democratic leaders agreed to spend $400 million to extend a commuter train from San Jose to his Central Valley district and $100 million to build a parkway linking the University of California, Merced to Highway 99.

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.

Separately, lawmakers voted to ask voters to amend the state constitution to require that the money be spent on transportation projects. The measure will be on the 2018 ballot. Republicans weren't convinced that the measure is strong enough, warning that creative lawyers will find a way around it.

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. The change angered environmentalists, who worry it could impede regulations that indirectly affect truckers, such as restrictions on emissions at ports, warehouses, railyards and airports.

"We are deeply disappointed that the Legislature chose to sacrifice our clean air plans just to appease one polluting industry in their haste to rush through a transportation funding bill," said Adrian Martinez, an attorney for Earthjustice.

Republicans in the Assembly argued the bill doesn't do enough to guarantee existing revenue is spent responsibly.

"Before we take a single dollar from Californians again that increase their taxes we have the duty to make sure that we first are spending every dollar they send us the best we can," said Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, a Bay Area Republican. "SB1 totally fails to do that."

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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