Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget (PDF), unveiled today at a Capitol press conference, confirms what transit agencies and advocates across the state have been fearing: a $1.5 billion proposed scheme to divert funds that would otherwise provide critical relief to California’s struggling transit agencies.
"Once again, the governor offers shell games instead of solutions, and transit riders in California again suffer the consequences," said Joshua Shaw, the Executive Director of the California Transit Association (CTA). "The governor wants to disguise this as some sort of tax relief for families. What about the thousands of families who depend on public transit to get to work or to go out and buy food to put on their tables, the kids who need transit to get to school, or the elderly and disabled persons who rely on transit to access medical services? I guess they don’t count."
The budget scheme defies a state Supreme Court ruling that declared the governor’s continued raids on public transit funds illegal. Rather than adhere to the ruling, the governor proposes to eliminate the state sales tax on gas and replace it with an excise tax. "Instead of diverting money from the Public Transportation Account (PTA)," the CTA said in a press release, "the proposal would remove the funding stream that is supposed to flow into the PTA in the first place, effectively eliminating state funding for transit."
And according to the governor’s budget document, the result is "an overall decrease in taxes on motorists of about ﬁve cents per gallon." So, drivers get a break while transit riders get a slap in the face.
"The governor doesn’t seem to be able to make the connection between 21st century priorities…and a suitable 21st century approach to funding transportation needs," said Shaw.
Legislators Could Block Proposal
There might be some hope, though, according the CTA’s Jeff Wagner. He said he finds it hard to believe the Legislature would buy into the scheme because it "ultimately becomes a tax increase that doesn’t fund new services but pays off bond debt." And, Democratic legislators have already expressed vehement opposition to the "tough times" budget, designed to deal with a $20 billion deficit. It also calls for steep cuts in education, health care, social services and environmental programs.
"With regard to the bulk of the budget proposal, I have one reaction: You’ve got to be kidding," Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) told the LA Times.
In an interview with Streetsblog, Assemblymember Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park), who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee and recently held two public hearings on the transit crisis, said Schwarzenegger’s proposal is ill-advised and that it was "absolutely incredulous" to cut transit at a time when it’s needed "to get working families to their jobs and stimulate the economy."
"The governor’s scheme on the tax swap proposal is going to mean far, far less money for transit, basically gut money for transit, and hurt local governments," said Eng, who is also concerned about how further transit cuts would affect people who live in transit-oriented housing and air quality.
"We are seeing more and more working families that want to grow up in an era in which their children can breath more pure air and not have to deal with a lot of the illnesses and upper-respiratory diseases that they went through. And when you remove transit it results in unhealthier air quality and people may die. It’s an issue of life and death," said Eng.
Eng said he was still reviewing the budget plan and planned to get input from constituents, and claimed many of his Democratic colleagues support transit and that it ranks near the top of the list of concerns among their constituents.
Considering the Legislature didn’t block the governor’s previous proposals to slash transit funding, however, it remains questionable whether legislators will go to bat for transit this time around. The CTA, however, remains optimistic.
"There are those in the Legislature who get it, and we look forward to working with them to give this proposal the rejection it deserves," said Shaw.