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Governor Expects Tax Hike Will Yield $52B for Projects

Mon April 17, 2017 - West Edition #8
Jonathan J. Cooper - ASSOCIATED PRESS

California Gov. Jerry Brown employed all the tricks he's accumulated over a lifetime in politics to pass one of the largest state tax increases in recent memory in one frenzied week.

Using a mix of public pressure, private arm-twisting, a late-night meeting at the governor's mansion and nearly $1 billion of pork, Brown showed the political acumen that's made him California's longest-serving chief executive.

Brown, who typically prefers to politick in private, was a very public campaigner for the deal he negotiated with fellow Democratic legislative leaders. He ventured to Concord and Riverside to pressure undecided legislators from those areas, and he appealed directly to two legislative committees.

A group of contractors and construction unions underwrote a $1 million ad blitz on TV and social media. And the day before the vote Brown headlined a rally at the state Capitol.

The tax hike, projected to raise more than $5 billion a year from higher gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, cleared the Legislature on April 6 without a single vote to spare for the two-thirds majority required for tax increases.

Minutes later, at about 11 p.m. on the eve of his 79th birthday, Brown stepped out of his office and declared victory, flanked by about a dozen lawmakers.

“I appreciate being a Democrat and what the Democrats did tonight,' Brown said. “The Democratic Party is the party of doing things. And tonight we did something to fix the roads of California.'

Californians have historically been receptive to hiking taxes on the rich and “sins' like cigarettes. In 2012, Brown convinced voters to approve a higher income tax on the wealthy.

Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at University of California, San Diego, said Brown and his legislative partners — Senate leader Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon — cleared a higher hurdle by winning passage for a much broader tax package.

“What he got was a legislature ... to look ahead 10, 20 years into the future and put some pain on their voters today to build California for the future,' Kousser said. “That makes it a really tough trek.'

The deal will raise gasoline taxes 43 percent to 47.3 cents per gallon beginning Nov. 1. Diesel taxes will more than double to 36 cents a gallon. Vehicle owners will be charged a new annual fee, paid along with the vehicle registration.

The money, more than $52 billion over the next 10 years, will pay for repairs to state highways and local streets, along with improvements to bridges, public transit, and biking and walking trails.

Every Republican but one opposed the plan. Conceding that road conditions are dire, Republicans said overtaxed Californians can't shoulder another increase. California's gas taxes will be among the highest in the nation.

The decision to ask lawmakers for a tax hike is a departure from Brown's promise in 2010, when he pledged not to raise taxes without a vote of the people. However, he did not repeat the promise when he was re-elected four years later.

“He has that uncanny knack for knowing when to seize a political issue and run with it and make it work and score with it,' said Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University. “He rarely loses the big fight.'

Brown, Rendon and de Leon worked on the deal for nearly two years. The governor called lawmakers into special session in 2015 to deal with roads, but after on-again, off-again talks, they walked away at the end of last year's legislative session, pledging to try again after the 2016 election.

In February, the trio said they'd imposed a deadline on themselves to pass the tax hike by April 6, the last day before lawmakers began their spring break. A week before the deadline, they announced their deal.

Brown went to Concord the next day to highlight bad roads in the overlapping districts of Sen. Steve Glazer and Assemblyman Tim Grayson, both Democrats. Grayson ended up supporting the tax hike while Glazer was one of two legislative Democrats to vote against it.

A few days later, Brown was in Riverside for a rally to pressure Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes and Sen. Richard Roth, Democrats in swing districts that are top targets for Republicans next year. Cervantes and Roth voted for the bill after receiving guarantees that about $420 million will go to their region for road projects.

Without Glazer's support, Brown needed a Republican. He found a partner in Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres, who'd sent strong signals that he'd be willing to vote for the deal under the right circumstances.

Brown got Canella's vote following a meeting at the governor's mansion that wrapped up around 10 p.m. April 5. Cannella said Brown, de Leon and Rendon pressured him for hours.

“There was a lot of arm-twisting,' Cannella said. “There was a lot of my arm being twisted, actually.'

He didn't go away empty-handed: For his vote, Canella was promised a half-billion dollars for road and train projects in his district. —AP

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