Breaking Down Prop 69

Fix-CA-roads

There are five statewide propositions on the spring primary ballot that voters will decide tomorrow. As with most ballot box measures, there are also campaigns underway to muddy the issues and confuse voters.

Of those five measures, there is one that pertains directly to transportation and urban planning. Proposition 69 would require that funds generated by a 2017 gas tax increase be spent only on transportation projects.

It seems pretty straightforward. A vote for Proposition 69 is a vote to protect transportation funds and make sure they are spent on transportation. A vote against it could allow the legislature to spend the money, with a majority vote (and a governor’s signature), on whatever it wants – maybe education, maybe pensions, maybe something else.

I have trouble picturing why anyone who cares about the state of California’s infrastructure would oppose the measure. The California state government doesn’t have the best track record of spending funds raised for transportation on transportation as it is.

Governor Jerry Brown has placed infrastructure spending at the top of his agenda, so it hasn’t been an issue the last seven years. But before that, even with a governor who claimed to be an environmentalist, funds set aside for transit spending became a piggy bank for the state’s general fund.

It wasn’t that long ago that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to both position himself as a champion on battling climate change and a governor who repeatedly raided transit funds to balance the budget. Schwarzenegger used a clause from past ballot measures that allowed him to declare an emergency to override the will of the voters on ballot measure spending. While the loophole was intended to allow the government flexibility in the case of wildfire, earthquakes, or some other disaster, Governor Schwarzenegger had a different type of emergency in mind.

Schwarzenegger declared an emergency because the state budget was not balanced, and then he raided the state’s transportation dollars. When his administration’s defense of the practice was rejected by the California Supreme Court in 2009, Plan B was to repeal the transportation tax and replace it with another one. There would be no increase or decrease in fees, but the state would be allowed to spend the money on whatever it deemed appropriate. While the plan didn’t go forward – thank the election of Jerry Brown for that – it eroded public confidence that the state would continue to safeguard transportation funds.

Proposition 69 closes this loophole for this tax measure as well.

So that leaves three reasons to vote against this measure:

  1. You trust the legislature and governor to spend money wisely, and think transportation taxes could be better spent on something else.
  2. You really want to repeal the state gas tax on the fall ballot, and think that placing reasonable restrictions on how funds can be spent weakens your case.
  3. Based on past experience, you think that the governor and legislature will find a way around any restrictions we pass anyway.

If you read any of the last three bullet points and thought, “That’s me!” then you should probably vote against Prop 69. If you didn’t, then you should probably vote for it.

More coverageAn explainer from Foothill Transit. Vote “Yes” endorsements from the L.A. Times, the San Jose Mercury-News and the Sacramento Bee. Vote “No” from a columnist from the San Luis-Obispo Tribune and The John and Ken Show.

  • FrancisOfAscii

    Right. I hope it is used for transit projects, but I fear it will be used to fund wider highways and bridges to nowhere. The money should be spent on things that would offset the externalities that you mention.

  • LazyReader

    That sounds lofty, back then the feds were the ones who always earmarked funds for boondoggles and states fought to keep the money in house. Fix California’s roads. Gas taxes shouldn’t have to pay for light rail, heavy rail or monorails or any ambitious flashy projects. Simply fixing what they have will offset their maintenance backlogs. Unlike the maintenance backlog for highways and bridges, which could be easily eliminated with a small increase in fuel taxes or other user fees, the transit industry has no hope of fixing its backlog by raising transit fares. Those fares do not begin to cover operating costs, much less the costs of maintenance or improvements.

  • Stuart

    Agreed. The article misses the very basic:
    4. You think constitutional amendments earmarking random subsets of state revenue is an awful way to run a state’s finances.

    I support education, emergency services, mental health services, and any number of other things that I’ve voted against constitutional amendment set-asides for on principle.

    (Maybe the authors would argue that this is essentially 1, but I think there’s an important distinction between blindly trusting legislators vs. just not wanting to perpetuate a broken system that slowly replaces representational democracy where budgets can be evaluated as a whole by people whose whole job is to do that, with direct democracy based on one-off emotional appeals that the vast majority of people don’t have the time or expertise to meaningfully evaluate in the context of the budgeting process.)

  • Marta Lindsey

    Thanks for this great article… and an important reminder of how transportation funds were raided in the past (and there was a HUGE hit to public transit as a result).

  • Justin Runia

    Yeah, Diesel emissions are a pretty goddamn big externality, the idea that a Diesel tax should only go toward road infrastructure is absurd.

  • Not all of it is, but there are a plethora of dedicated sales taxes, especially in LA County with Measures R and M for transportation and Measure HHH for homelessness issues.

  • Nothing to miss except that the Republicans refuse to promote it because they’re all about attacking SB1.

  • Ballot box budgeting can be pretty problematic, especially in a state with notoriously volatile revenue. When the next recession hits, CA is going to start cutting all sorts of things: K-12, higher education, health care, etc. At that time, we might reasonably decide that we have higher priorities than filling potholes, at least temporarily.

  • Jason

    The gas tax money would have to be spent on transportation, not necessarily just on roads.

  • DrunkEngineer

    I disagree with the notion that gas taxes can only be spent on transportation. We don’t do this with other purchases. For example, the tax paid on food isn’t earmarked to agricultural programs. The tax paid on bicycles isn’t earmarked to bike lanes. The tax paid on books isn’t earmarked to educational programs. Why should gas taxes be any different — especially given all the externalities caused by driving?

  • Jason

    Thanks for this, Prop 69 seems so straightforward that it made me suspicious that I was missing something, so it’s useful to have confirmation that it really is just super straightforward.

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