Jerry Brown's Clout Tested as Transportation Showdown Looms

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Governor Jerry Brown speaks at a rally in favor of a $52.4 billion transportation funding plan.  (Katie Orr/KQED)

The stage is set for a razor close vote at the California Capitol on Thursday on a $52.4 billion transportation funding deal: Since Senate Bill 1 would raise taxes it requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

Democrats hold a two-thirds majority in the state Senate and Assembly and they’ll need nearly all of those votes to get their transportation bill through both houses.

At a rally on Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown joined with Senate and Assembly leaders to try to push the measure across the finish line. He says while there are a lot of issues in Sacramento that lawmakers can put off, transportation infrastructure isn’t one of them.

“When it comes to fixing roads that are falling apart, or that bridge down there in Monterey County that no longer can support a car, you gotta do it now," Brown said. "And if you don’t do it, it gets more expensive next year, and the year after.”

The cost of providing emergency fixes to the state highway system has been on an upward trend for the last few years. The steady deluge of storms this winter has caused wet weather damages to surge to roughly $866 million in the first three months of 2017, CALmatters reports, making it the most expensive year for the state road system in at least two decades.

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So SB-1 comes at an opportune moment for Brown and lawmakers backing it. The legislation would gradually raise the money for road, freeway and bridge repairs as well as public transit by imposing a new fee (transportation improvement fee) on registered vehicles. It would also increase the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon and the diesel tax by 20 cents a gallon.

Democratic Assemblyman Jim Frazier, who has been ushering the bill through his chamber, has authored a Constitutional Amendment that would require the plan's funding to be spent only on transportation.

"We have worked tirelessly over the last two years to determine the need of the state, develop a plan that meets the need, and create safeguards to ensure that these resources can never be moved or diverted to other purposes," he said.

But the funding formula has turned off Republicans in the Legislature who say they’ve been left out of negotiations. GOP Assemblyman Vince Fong said California doesn't need to raise taxes to fix its roads.

"The General Fund has gone up $36 billion over the last six years," Fong said. "And none of that money has gone to roads. If the Legislature believes that road infrastructure is the No. 1 priority facing the state, then we should look at our budget and fund it as our No. 1 priority."

Republicans aren't the only ones resisting the measure: Some moderate Democrats have concerns, too, leaving the bill's fate up in the air as a vote draws near. The legislation's success will test Brown's political muscle as he heads into the final 20 months of his last term in office.