Opaque Process Leaves Californians in the Dark about Transportation Funding

bikeatCapitollabel2Amid the swirling madness that is the final few weeks of the California legislative session—all bills must be voted on by September 11, or wait until next year—the question of how to raise, and spend, money on transportation is still very much up in the air. Increasingly, it looks like major decisions will be made behind closed doors and out of the public eye.

Governor Brown called for two “special sessions” to force agreements on major issues the state must confront, or face serious consequences in the near future: transportation and health care. But learning what “special session” means has been a quixotic exercise, as they are rare, and few capitol staffers have a clear understanding of exactly what one entails. This is what Streetsblog has been able to find out:

  • The rules for a special, also known as “extraordinary,” session follow the rules of a regular legislative session, except when they don’t.
  • Special Session committees are formed for each subject in each house, apart from the regular session committees. Members are appointed by the Senate Pro-Tem or the Assembly Speaker.
  • Those committees are a Rules Committee, an Appropriations Committee, and a subject committee—for example, the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
  • The committees are set up to consider bills on their subjects, which can be introduced by any legislator, just like in the regular session.
  • But the usual legislative deadlines don’t apply. That is, a bill doesn’t have to be “in print” for thirty days before it gets a hearing, so it can be introduced up until the last minute. Also, it can go directly from a committee to be voted on the floor of the legislature. It’s not even clear that anything must be decided before September 11, when the regular session ends—except that the lawmakers will be heading back to their districts then, and not likely to willingly stick around in Sacramento for more hearings.
  • Information about the special session committee hearings is hidden deep within the respective legislative websites, harder to find and follow even than the traditionally obtuse regular session information.

So far each subject committee has held only two hearings, and only one of those was for the purpose of discussing legislation. The Assembly committee held a sparsely attended informational hearing this week about improving freight movement, but the only legislator who stayed to listen to testimony was committee chair Assemblymember Jim Frazier (D-Oakley).

It looks increasingly like there may be no more hearings on any of the proposed bills, although there are quite a few of them pending [PDF]. There are two “spot” bills waiting to be considered by each house right now, each containing only a few vague words about “legislative intent,” signifying nothing. At some point before mid September those bills will be amended after private negotiations between the power players, and involving who-knows-what compromises between the two houses, between the two parties, and among legislator’s pet projects. And then they may be voted on immediately in both houses.

So much for the process. The outcome, at this point, is far from certain. Up for discussion are raising gas and diesel taxes, money for transit, and oversight for Caltrans. Active transportation and cutting down vehicle miles traveled has yet to be seriously considered as a strategic goal for the special session, apart from a vague general notion that any road building would include a “complete streets” component.

At the same time, separate discussions on the details of the budget that was passed in June are taking place within a similar process, wherein vague spot bills are “published” but the real negotiations are happening in private. The budget talks include the not-very-minor detail of how to divvy up the forty percent of cap-and-trade funds that have yet to be officially allocated to particular programs.

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At a press conference in the capitol building on Tuesday, Senators Kevin de Leon, Mark Leno, and Fran Pavely stressed the urgency of climate change policies. Image: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

Meanwhile legislators in the Senate and Assembly are holding press conferences to stump for new climate change policies that would set a goal of cutting gasoline use in half and increasing fuel efficiency. One bill in particular, S.B. 350, is under attack from the oil companies’ lobbyists, the Western States Petroleum Association, which sent out mailers claiming that the bill calls on the Air Resources Board to impose gas rationing and fines for using too much fuel (it doesn’t). That bill passed the Appropriations committee yesterday, but faces a floor vote in the Assembly, where Republicans are gunning for it. Republicans generally are fighting any bill on climate change policy  or that would raise taxes. They are so knee-jerk about taxes that on Thursday most of the Senate Republicans even voted against a package of bills that would raise taxes on tobacco products to pay for health care programs for people who get sick because they are addicted to tobacco.

These various discussions are not unrelated. Cutting gasoline use won’t happen without cutting the amount of driving people do; fixing congestion ain’t gonna happen if we rely on switching to electric cars; greenhouse gas emissions won’t be reduced if money is invested in roads and highways that encourage more driving. However, on the surface, in the hearings, no one is making the connections between transportation funding and climate change policies explicit.

In the special session on transportation, decisions need to be made about funding (where it will come from, how much can be collected, and what it should be used for), priorities (whether legislators will focus on potholes and congestion, or widen the conversation to discuss long-term priorities including improving transit and active transportation to reduce stress on existing infrastructure), and oversight (how will they make sure that any money raised is actually spent on transportation, and that it’s not spent profligately—both fair questions given California’s experience over the last decades).

In calling for the transportation special session, Governor Brown declared it was for the purpose of considering “legislation to enact pay-as-you-go, permanent, and sustainable funding to adequately and responsibly maintain and repair the state’s transportation and other critical infrastructure, improve the state’s key trade corridors, and complement local efforts for repair and improvements of local transportation infrastructure” as well as create measurable performance objectives and ways of reducing wasteful spending.

However, so far all the focus has been on the disagreement between Republicans and Democrats about where funding should come from. Republicans want to reassign existing funds from other programs, even calling for using cap-and-trade funds to fund road repair, and they refuse to consider raising taxes. Democrats, far braver than their colleagues, are pushing to raise gas taxes—which, although they are inadequate, inefficient, shrinking, and won’t be enough to fill the funding gap, are the closest thing California has to a user fee, wherein people using some public good (roads and highways, in this case) are the ones paying for them.

Meanwhile Governor Brown has taken a back seat, telling reporters he’s playing the role of a “brooding omnipresence” and a “catalytic agent” but refusing to weigh in on any of the current proposals.

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