The Riggs Report: Roads, taxes and retribution

Democrats need Republicans to raise California gas tax

In these waning days of the legislative session, the Democrats who rule under the Capitol dome find themselves in the relatively rare position of needing Republican votes; in this case, to raise the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon and to raise the state’s vehicle license fee.

The cause? To raise money to repair California’s badly dilapidated road system. Gov. Jerry Brown said earlier this year, the price tag for that backlog of repairs totals a whopping $59 billion.

That repair figure is daunting but not nearly as much as finding a Republican legislator who is willing to break ranks with party leadership and walk the political plank.

The California Business Roundtable and other business groups are making the case that raising the tax is good for business. But any member of the GOP who votes yes would find themselves immediately targeted for political payback, branded as an ideological turncoat, and more.

Roger Niello, a former assembly member from Fair Oaks, knows this perilous path well. He was one of a half dozen Republican legislators who famously cast the deciding votes to pass a $14 billion package of temporary taxes—income tax, vehicle license fee, and sales tax—in 2009.

California was in the depths of the recession and facing a fiscal cliff, with an enormous budget deficit projected in excess of $40 billion.

“I don’t regret that vote one bit,” Niello told me in an interview this week. “What we were facing then was an indescribable liquidity crisis that would’ve bankrupted some counties, bankrupted some small businesses that do business with the state, and I didn’t want to see that happen.”

Niello said there was no need for any arm twisting from the Schwarzenegger administration to convince him to vote yes. And while Schwarzenegger was grateful, party activists were livid.

When Niello ran for an open Senate seat the following year to replace the late Dave Cox, those activists turned their wrath on him.

Niello lost the primary vote in November 2010, failing to make the runoff. It was essentially the price he paid for a tax vote that ran counter to party ideology.

“I knew it,” Niello said. “When I cast that vote, I knew my political future as an elected official at the state level was significantly challenged. I knew it would be.”

But Niello said there is no comparison between the 2009 budget crisis and the current push for transportation funding.

“That was a pending urgent financial disaster that doesn’t exist now,” Niello said, adding that he supports tax alternatives such as contracting with private companies for road repairs and tapping into the state’s cap and trade fund to improve road capacity and traffic flow.

The Democrats’ efforts to find Republican support for raising the gas tax is also complicated by a new poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. It finds 54 percent of Democratic respondents were supportive, while 73 percent of Republican respondents were opposed.

Members of both parties were strongly opposed to the idea of raising the vehicle license fee. The session isn’t over yet, but road repair taxes face a steep road indeed.