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Road Repair Bill Moves Forward In California Legislature

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

California Gov. Jerry Brown (right) testifies in support of the transportation funding deal he reached with Democratic legislative leaders at the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Monday, April 3, 2017.

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

The transportation funding deal reached last week by Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders has passed its first test in the California Legislature, despite continued opposition from environmental groups over an air quality exemption for trucks.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill, SB 1, on a party-line vote Monday after a lengthy hearing that included an in-person appearance from the governor. Brown also appeared at an informational hearing later Monday before the Assembly Transportation Committee.

“You vote this down, what, are they gonna do it next year? They gonna do it the year after?“ Brown quipped at one point during the Senate hearing. “All the guys running for governor all want to be president. So they’re not gonna want to raise taxes,“ he continued, drawing laughter. “I mean, you got a guy who’s going nowhere. I have no future. I only have a past. So I’m willing to do it.”

Backers and critics of the bill lined up to testify. Groups that support SB 1 include local government coalitions, the California Chamber of Commerce, labor unions – and now, the California Trucking Association, which is accepting two tax increases on diesel fuel in exchange for legislation that delays future air quality regulations on commercial trucks.

“We’ve always said, we’re willing to pay our fair share. We’re not willing to pay more than our fair share,“ CEO Shawn Yaden told Capital Public Radio Monday outside the Senate hearing. “And when you look at the overall package, this transportation funding package, we feel very good about it, and we’re happy to support it.”

Late amendments over the weekend sought to assuage the concerns of environmental groups.

“I can’t please everybody with this bill,“ the measure's author, Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) told the Senate committee. “This is a bill that requires two-thirds (support in both chambers), so you’re gonna have a lot of people that are going to be uncomfortable one way or the other. But I think it doesn’t harm the state, in terms of air quality, with trucks.”

Yet environmental justice advocates slammed the side deal, saying it would harm low-income communities whose air quality is the worst in the state.

“Our communities cannot breathe!“ Katie Valenzuela Garcia of Sacramento told the Senate committee. “And we thought that our right to breathe would be worth more than the few billion dollars in transportation improvements. But we were sad to be proven wrong today.”

In addition to many environmental groups, taxpayer groups and some other business groups also oppose the measure.

“I do believe there’s a silent Californian out there, (and) I feel their presence very strongly here in the room, today,” said Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Tehama), suggesting Californians want the state to spend existing money on road repairs, rather than paying higher gas taxes and vehicle fees.

Even some Democrats have concerns. Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) represents a struggling part of Los Angeles County, which he says doesn’t benefit from government spending as much as wealthier parts of the state.

“To keep marginalizing it – it’s only $10 a month or something like that – well, for some folks, $10 a month means the difference of having groceries on the table or gas in the car,” said Bradford, who nevertheless voted for the bill in committee Monday.

The hunt for votes is expected to climax Thursday afternoon – the day lawmakers adjourn for spring break and the arbitrary deadline set by the governor and Democratic leaders. That's just one week after the bill's text was made public, and the bare minimum of 72 hours after Monday's amendments to the bill were put in print to comply with voter-approved Proposition 54.

So far, no Republicans have endorsed the bill. Unless that changes, backers will need every Senate Democrat and all but one in the Assembly to reach the two-thirds vote required to raise taxes and fees.

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio