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Overtaxed Californians Want More Services but Not More Gas Taxes

Government

When biggest line item in a budget becomes pensions, not public services, government is transformed from serving the public to serving itself.

Morning commute traffic moves westbound on the San Francisco Bay Bridge across a newly added section of roadway September 8, 2009 in San Francisco, California. San Francisco Bay Area commuters were able to drive across the San Francisco Bay Bridge this morning after emergency repairs were conducted to fix a crack in a two inch thick steel link and threatened the closure of the bridge for an additional day following a weekend of closure to add a new section of roadway to the eastern span. The eastern span of the bridge is being rebuilt and is expect to be completed in 2013. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A recent statewide poll by The Field Research Corporation found that voters strongly believe that state and local governments in California should be spending more money to improve roadway conditions, but at the same time the same voters are divided on raising new tax dollars to pay for the improvements.

In fact, a whopping 76 percent of California voters view California’s existing gasoline tax, which is used in part to pay for new roads and maintenance, as too high already, according to the Field poll.

These voters have good reason to share the view that California’s gas taxes (like its’ income and state sales taxes) are already too high. California’s gas tax per gallon is complicated and involves Federal, state sales and excise taxes. According to George Runner, a member of the state’s Board of Equalization, which administers the tax, California consumers already pay 71 cents per gallon every time they fill up their tanks in taxes, while the average paid in other states is 50 cents per gallon, according to Runner.

Morning commute traffic moves westbound on the San Francisco Bay Bridge across a newly added section of roadway September 8, 2009 in San Francisco, California. San Francisco Bay Area commuters were able to drive across the San Francisco Bay Bridge this morning after emergency repairs were conducted to fix a crack in a two inch thick steel link and threatened the closure of the bridge for an additional day following a weekend of closure to add a new section of roadway to the eastern span. The eastern span of the bridge is being rebuilt and is expect to be completed in 2013.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Morning commute traffic moves westbound on the San Francisco Bay Bridge across a newly added section of roadway September 8, 2009 in San Francisco, California. San Francisco Bay Area commuters were able to drive across the San Francisco Bay Bridge this morning after emergency repairs were conducted to fix a crack in a two inch thick steel link and threatened the closure of the bridge for an additional day following a weekend of closure to add a new section of roadway to the eastern span. The eastern span of the bridge is being rebuilt and is expect to be completed in 2013. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Motor vehicle fuel taxes will add close to $5 billion in revenue to state coffer’s in 2015, but the amount of revenue is trending down, as cars become more fuel-efficient and use less gas. Yet even with $5 billion in tax revenues just from the gas tax, largely intended for roads, California still suffers from a vast network of pot-holed roadways in need of repair.

In beautiful Sonoma County in California’s bucolic wine country, it is estimated that there are 1,400 miles of roads that will require $1.6 billion to repair, money that the county on its own simply doesn’t have to fix the roads. In San Joaquin County in the state’s Central Valley, estimates are that another $1.25 billion is necessary to fix and maintain 3,288 miles of roads over the next 10 years, and that as a result of shrinking Federal and state dollars for road maintenance, the roads may fall into further disrepair. These needs are not to mention the road networks in need of attention in major population centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego counties.

Part of the reason Sonoma cannot repair its roads is because of the substantial drain that out-of-control public employee union pension liabilities costs the county.

Since 2000, spending on pensions has grown 400 percent. Sonoma is simply strapped for cash and in order to afford its pension payment obligations, it must reduce other pubic spending including fixing roads. Public employee union pension obligations are swamping city-after-city in California with the result being reduction in other public services.

In San Jose, for example, roads are “pocked with potholes” and libraries closed three days a week, because of generous public employee pension obligations that gobble up so much of the city’s annual budget. As a result even some police services have been eliminated, such as in its burglary unit.

A Democratic State Senator is looking at new ways to raise taxes and has proposed legislation to tax all automobiles on actual road use, rather that just gasoline consumed, in an effort to make owners of more fuel efficient vehicles pay higher taxes. But the idea of installing an electronic device in California automobiles that would measure the amount of miles driven so taxes could be levied on a per mile basis instead of at the pump did not prove too popular in the recent Field poll, which found 66 percent opposed to the idea and only 30 percent in favor.

The real answer to funding necessary public services by state and local government and doing things like fixing roads and restoring police services in states like California is to re-establish priorities in favor of taxpayers and not government.

That process will necessarily involve rethinking the poor decisions government managers have made in the past on allowing for too generous public employee pensions, which are draining funds for other necessary services.

When the biggest line item in a government budget becomes pensions as opposed to public services, government is transformed from serving the public to serving itself. In California, people already feel they are overtaxed. Roads will continue to deteriorate, as will the general quality of life, until the state’s politicians understand that government needs to start spending less on itself, reform pensions, and spend better in favor of taxpayers without taxing more.

James V. Lacy, a frequent guest on Fox Business News Channel's "Varney and Company," is author of "Taxifornia: Liberal's Laboratory to Bankrupt America."

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