Sacramento Bee Editorial: Legislature shouldn’t choke on diesel’s win

April, 3, 2017
By Editorial Board
For a lesson in how Capitol politics works, take a look at the gasoline tax bill, and the trucking industry’s hand in it.

By this Friday, the Legislature is expected to vote on – and we hope approve – a bill to raise taxes and fees that will generate $52 billion during the coming decade for road repairs and construction and public transit. That price tag includes $10.8 billion in increased diesel taxes.

Truckers are integral to California’s ports and to its economy. And although trucks are cleaner than they once were, diesel exhaust is among the biggest sources of smog, greenhouse gas and particulates.

Truckers are significant campaign donors and retain some of the Capitol’s top lobbyists. And so while trucking companies would pay billions more in higher taxes, the industry saw an opportunity to get something in return for its support, and took it.

An amendment of about 300 words is buried in Section 18 of Senate Bill 1, a bill that has 50 sections. As with all such provisions, the amendment is arcane, reading in part:

“This bill would prohibit, except as specified, the requiring of the retirement, replacement, retrofit, or repower of a self-propelled commercial motor vehicle, directly or indirectly, during a specified period.”

By way of translation, truckers long have sought a rule assuring them that when they buy new trucks, which can cost $120,000 or more each, they can operate them for the vehicles’ useful life – 800,000 miles – without fear that new state or local air quality rules would compel removal of their fleet from the road.

 

There’s an element of irony in the agreement by Gov. Jerry Brown and other Democrats who control the Legislature to support the truckers’ language. They are fighting President Donald Drumpf’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations. And yet in this instance, they would give diesel engines a break.

Lobbyists for environmental organizations, alarmed by the broad wording of what they call the “dirty truck amendment,” are invoking an environmental justice argument intended to make liberal Democrats squirm, noting that the poorest people who live along freeways would be most directly affected.

Brown, speaking in favor of the bill at the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday, summed up the politics of the matter: “If we don’t help the truckers, they oppose. If we help truckers, the enviros say, ‘Hey, why are you helping them?’ ” Without the truckers’ support, other business groups would drop their support, and the $52 billion deal would unravel.

Brown also cited the urgency of the matter. Candidates seeking to replace him in 2018 aren’t likely to push for a $5 billion a year tax increase. Whoever becomes governor probably will run for president, he noted, and won’t want to risk losing swing state votes by supporting a large tax hike.

The bill has other failings. It doesn’t prohibit public transit workers from striking, for example. But California’s roads are rutted, clogged and in need of help. The cost of repair won’t fall if lawmakers fail to act now. We’d certainly prefer not to pay more for gasoline. So while the bill isn’t perfect, it is worthy of support.

And with all the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by the cap-and-trade program to further subsidize retrofit or removal of older trucks, lawmakers have alternate routes toward cleaning up the roads.