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Transportation Funding Bill Passes with Closed-Door Deals and Public Posturing

S.B. 1 needed 54 votes in the Assembly to pass, and this was how the vote looked for a good five minutes at the end of the night. Assemblymembers Cooper, Grayson, and Muratsuchi eventually voted yes.

Well, it’s done.

Last night, the California legislature passed S.B. 1, the historic transportation funding bill that has been hard fought for the last two years. The Senate passed it with a vote of 27-11, and the Assembly by 54-26. It was barely enough to meet the 2/3 threshold required for legislation that raises taxes, but it was enough.

The last vote ended with a nail-biting finish. At close to 11 p.m., the voting screen paused as shown in the image above, and an intense five minutes passed before the last three votes were cast, putting the measure just over the top.

All afternoon the two houses had hosted “debates” on the bill, but those served mainly as an opportunity for grandstanding. Most minds had been made up, and the real negotiations, to convince the few undecided votes, was going on behind closed doors.

The extent of those private deals may take a while to reveal themselves, because they were not included in the bill itself. S.B. 1 could not be amended at the last minute because Prop 54, passed by voters in November, requires bills to be in their final form for at least 72 hours before being voted on. Amending S.B. 1 would have triggered a waiting period, and legislative leaders did not want to wait until after the spring recess.

But other bills can be amended, and they were. One was S.B. 132, a budget bill that had an interesting variety of transportation allocations added to it. Some of those were highway expansions--toll roads, express lanes, and interchanges--in Riverside County. That’s the district of two undecided legislators, Senator Richard Roth and Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, both Democrats who ended up voting yes on the bill.

Also added to S.B. 132 was money to extend the Altamont Corridor Express train that now goes from San Jose to Tracy, all the way to Merced. That would bring it to the districts of Assemblymember Adam Gray (D-Merced) and of Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres). Both voted for S.B. 1, with Cannella the only Republican who did so.

Consider that. A promise to support transit in a Republican’s district helped garner his vote for a transportation bill utterly opposed by Republicans.

But S.B. 132 also allocates money from state highway funds for a project called University Parkway, which would connect UC Merced to Highway 99. Parkway sounds nice—but it’s actually a freeway.

Another amendment to S.B. 132 added money for a program to “advance implementation of zero/near zero emission warehouses and technology.” This may have been what convinced Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino) to vote for the bill. She was one of few legislators who openly expressed deep concern about the last-minute amendment exempting trucks from air quality rules, and in a statement she said she decided to support the bill because she “secured commitments from Senate leaders and the Brown Administration that they will work with me in the near future to ensure that we continue to protect California’s air quality from mobile source emissions.”

While these concession, and likely more, were being made, the Senate and Assembly floor featured grand, impassioned speeches that served little purpose. Republicans angrily vented that the bill is:

    • a job killer
    • harmful to their constituents, who must drive long distances, and some of whom are low-income
    • the result of “failed leadership” in Sacramento and a government that “nobody trusts”
    • “a waste”—everything not spent on congestion or lane expansion is a waste, per Assemblymember Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) and others
    • full of “false promises”
    • a way to keep “stealing” truck weight fees and “cheating” taxpayers
    • a fake-out that will ultimately be used to fund the dreaded high speed rail
    • not necessary, because the “bloated” general fund has plenty of money in it that ought to go to transportation.

Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) responded to that last point, saying, “We could cut education. We could cut Medi-Cal. We could shut down the judiciary system. We could stop fighting fires for two and a half years... I would love to hear specifics [on what should be cut from the general budget], but I don’t think we’re going to.”

It was a depressing performance by the Republicans, who betrayed a poor understanding of the state budget process and of transportation funding, and even of the bill itself. Several repeated talking points that were flat-out wrong (that the bill, for example, allocated money for “boats”). As a group, they did the state a  disservice by indulging in partisan posturing, and wasted an opportunity to educate themselves and their constituents on the purpose and use of taxes.

After Senator Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove) demanded to know, “where is this money going?” it was too much for Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles).

“I need to remind my colleagues that we ultimately have fiduciary responsibility over the budget process,” she said. “That requires that all of us show up, . . . to dig in, and do the deep, hard work.”

“It’s one thing to stand on the floor and say ‘I don’t have confidence’,” she said. “It’s another thing to show up to budget hearings on Thursdays—when it may not be convenient because you’re trying to catch a plane home—to put in the work, to read the documents, and to fundamentally understand what we’re voting on, and what is being proposed.”

Assemblymember Shirley Weber speaks to the California Assembly about S.B. 1
Assemblymember Shirley Weber tells the California Assembly that voting for taxes isn't easy, but it's what grownups have to do.

In the Assembly, after hearing yet another story about a constituent who was going to have trouble saving up for a house if they have to pay more in gas taxes, Assemblymember Shirley Weber let it rip.

“It is amazing to me that all of a sudden the people on this floor are so concerned about the poor, about the people who are struggling every day,” she said. “When almost every issue we bring forward to deal with that, we run into resistance.”

“We run into resistance when we start talking about the family issues of life,” she said, “We run into resistance when we talk about what’s going to happen in childcare... on the minimum wage... on benefits... on overtime. People aren't poor because they can't work, they're poor because of the economic structure of California. And when we start talking about those issues, everybody runs and starts talking about how it benefits someone else.”

“It is not easy to vote for more taxes,” she said, “but those are the kinds of decisions grown people have to make. It would be easy for us to pretend that we don’t know what happened eight years ago, but we know exactly what happened.”

“It’s easy to attack,” she told her counterparts. “You can feel comfortable, knowing that we have 55 Democrats in this house, and that we’re going to take care of the business of California.”

You can watch all of the speeches yourself. The California Channel archives them all here. Look for the Senate and Assembly floor sessions for April 6, 2017. For the Senate speeches, click on "SB1" on the agenda below the video. The Assembly hearing starts at about 4:40:00 on the video.

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