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Governor to Be Pressed to Increase Tax on Gas

February 05, 1989|VIRGINIA ELLIS | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — When Gov. George Deukmejian sits down on Wednesday with business, labor and political leaders he has invited to grapple with one of California's most vexing problems--its clogged and crumbling highways--their advice may not be entirely to his liking.

Interviews with most of the 27 leaders who have been invited to the governor's transportation summit shows that there is resounding support for a substantial increase in the state's 9-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax and strong sentiment for enacting it without seeking voter approval.

The governor, who in the past has favored financing new highway construction with general obligation bonds, has repeatedly vowed to veto any gasoline tax increase that would not require submission to the voters. But many interpret his convening of a summit to propose solutions for the state's transportation problems as an indication that he may be open to compromise.

"We think a gas tax is long overdue. We're not in favor of going to the people with the gas tax. We think that's the responsibility of the Legislature," said Jack Maltester, president of Californians for Better Transportation, a nonprofit coalition of businesses, labor groups and local governments advocating improvements in California's transportation system.

Bipartisan Support

Maltester acknowledged that his group like many others invited to the summit hope to use the high-level meeting as an opportunity to try to persuade the governor to modify his position. With both Democratic and Republican legislative leaders having voiced their support for gas tax increases in the past, winning the governor's approval remains the major hurdle for advocates of increased funding for transportation.

Maltester said he will come to the meeting prepared to argue that voters, who had to consider 29 initiatives last November, are fast becoming disenchanted with having to sort through an array of complex ballot measures at every statewide election.

"If the body politic of California is forced to refer every major issue to a referendum, we might as well have public policy by referendum and that would be chaotic," said Tom Ellick, president of the California Manufacturers Assn. "I understand that there are political risks involved because nobody wants to be the legislator or the governor who increases taxes. At the same time what are they elected to do? They're elected to provide leadership and they're elected to make the tough decisions."

Other groups said they would cite a poll taken last year by Californians for Better Transportation that shows a majority of voters are unwilling to approve gas-tax increases above 3 cents a gallon.

Vote Opposed

"Recognizing how important it is to solve the state's transportation problems, we don't see what would be gained by submitting it to a vote," said Ed Gerber, executive director of the California Transit Assn.

"If you put a 10-cent increase on the ballot I think you've lost the initiative," added Jerry P. Cremins, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. "I don't think it sells. So do you do what legislators historically do--take half a pie. Then you sit on the freeway an hour instead of two hours."

But Cremins said he and the others who will meet with the governor understand that before any gas taxes are increased, the voters would have to alter the state's constitutional spending ceiling. The spending limit ties the amount of revenue that can be raised to population growth and the rate of inflation.

Nearly all of the groups were adamant that the summit as well as the Legislature should address not just the $3.5-billion projected deficit in the state's five-year, $14-billion transportation improvement plan, but also the long-range problems of transportation in a state facing worsening traffic congestion.


The groups' final proposals should include, they said, provisions for mass transit, recommendations for encouraging fewer drivers to use the highways and suggestions for using techniques such as double decking of highways and high-occupancy vehicle lanes (HOVs).

"I think we know that the transportation problem is going to take a comprehensive solution," said Kirk West, president of the California Chamber of Commerce. "I think that there are just a tremendous variety of things that need to be considered. You need to do about 20 or 30 different things, including encouraging employers to look at this as a very top priority."

While many declined to estimate how much it would cost and what level of tax increase would be required to reduce congestion, others agreed with legislative leaders who have suggested an additional $16 billion to $20 billion should be pumped into the system over the next decade. To raise that kind of money, they said, the first option would have to be a hefty increase in the gas tax.

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