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Crashing Head-On Over Congestion Initiative

Elections: Charges of illegality fly from both sides of measure to shift car tax revenue from the state's general fund toward easing traffic.


SACRAMENTO — Charges of wrongdoing flew Wednesday over Proposition 51, the traffic congestion measure on the November ballot, with a lawmaker accusing the authors of illegal "pay for play" tactics and an author in turn accusing lawmakers of illegally using taxpayer money in opposition to the initiative.

Written by the Sacramento-based nonprofit Planning and Conservation League, Proposition 51 would shift 30% of the state's motor vehicle sales tax revenue away from the general fund and into projects with a loose aim of easing traffic congestion and replacing old school buses. Next year that would amount to about $1 billion.

In a Capitol hearing on the budget effects of the measure, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Steve Peace (D-El Cajon) called it a car tax hike in disguise. He said lawmakers next year would have no choice but to increase vehicle license fees to fill the hole left by Proposition 51.

Peace also said he is gathering testimony from witnesses about connections between campaign donations and the projects in the ballot measure. He said he would give the information to the attorney general.

"We believe we have testimony that lays out at least a prima facie case for violation of the law," Peace said. But he declined to say which law or to name witnesses. Peace also said he would not give the testimony to prosecutors until after the Nov. 5 election because he did not want the criminal allegations to get tangled in election politics.

Jerry Meral, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, did not attend the hearing Wednesday. But he watched it on television from home and said afterward, "There's no evidence that we've committed any wrongdoing."

Calling Peace's allegations "Kafkaesque," Meral said the Legislature is probably violating a court decision that restricts the use of public money for lobbying on a ballot measure.

The Legislature usually holds just one pre-election hearing about a ballot measure. But lawmakers have convened three times on Proposition 51, including one hearing in Oakland. Another is scheduled for today in Los Angeles.

At the hearings, some lawmakers have been outspoken in their criticism of the measure. Last week, Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) called the Planning and Conservation League "initiative pimps."

Many of the more than 40 projects in Proposition 51 would benefit companies and foundations that have donated heavily to the Yes on 51 campaign.

Pardee Construction and Pardee Homes, for example, have given $500,000. The home builder stands to benefit from the connection of Interstate 5 and Route 56 in San Diego County, for which Proposition 51 earmarks $137 million.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has also donated $500,000. The ballot measure includes $120 million for a rail line to Indio that passes near the tribe's Palm Springs resort and casino. And the California State Railroad Museum Foundation has donated $75,000 to Proposition 51, which includes $7 million to build a railroad technology museum in Sacramento, plus $1 million a year for operation.

Peace noted in Wednesday's hearing that the ballot measure includes permanent funding for projects in only six of California's 58 counties.

By shifting nearly $1 billion within an already lean budget next year, Proposition 51 would make it all but inevitable that the Legislature would raise vehicle license fees rather than cut payments to local governments, he said. It is one of the few tax increases that does not require a two-thirds vote.

"People who vote for Prop. 51 are voting to increase the taxes on their cars," Peace said. "No way around it."

Meral responded that nothing in the measure raises taxes. Proposition 51's effect on the general fund is tiny, he said, compared with the state's overall budget troubles. Officials have projected a shortfall of $10 billion to $12 billion in next year's budget.

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