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GOP Defeats Transit Tax Plan in Assembly

By Virginia Ellis, Nancy Hill-Holtzman, Times Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 8, 1999

SACRAMENTO--In an issue expected to reverberate through next year's elections, Assembly Republicans on Tuesday killed the Democrats' plan for rehabilitating California's deteriorating transportation system, accusing the majority party of engaging in a "taxing jubilee."

Invoking the principles of Proposition 13 and other anti-tax measures, Republicans defeated a proposed constitutional amendment (SCA 3) that would have allowed voters in many counties to approve by a simple majority a half-cent sales tax earmarked for transportation.

The Republican solidarity denied Democrats the two-thirds vote needed to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

"Assembly Republicans had the opportunity . . . to show some leadership on the state's transportation crisis," said the plan's author, state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). "I'm baffled that they instead turned their backs on the business community and . . . commuters."

But for Republicans, who had planned their move for weeks, the Burton amendment afforded the first opportunity to draw a clear distinction between the parties over an issue on which the GOP had both leverage and a position it could sell to voters. Republican leaders said there was little risk of Democratic retribution, because the majority party had already jettisoned most significant GOP legislation this year.

"We don't have much to lose," said Assembly Republican Leader Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach).

In most urban counties, the ballot measure would have extended existing half-cent transportation sales taxes for 20 years beyond their expiration dates and raised an estimated $41 billion for highway needs. If the amendment had won statewide approval, counties without such a half-cent tax could have adopted one with the assent of a simple majority of voters.

Los Angeles is the only county that would not have been affected by the Democrats' proposal, because it has a permanent one-cent transportation sales tax.

Republicans set the stage for battle by unveiling a counterproposal that would have dedicated a small percentage of tax revenue growth to transportation and capital improvements.

They insisted that their proposal, unlike the Democratic approach, would have offered more money for projects--$75 billion to $125 billion--without raising taxes or increasing the state's bond debt.

Orange County, for example, would stand to get $6.9 billion for transportation projects under the GOP plan but only $3.8 billion under the Democrats' proposal. Moreover, counting interest on the bonds, taxpayers would wind up paying back $5.8 billion under the Democrats' plan.

The latter proposal "is not a good deal for Orange County," Assemblyman Bill Campbell (R-Villa Park) said during the debate.

But Democrats quickly voted down the Republicans' "20/20 Vision," saying it would eventually divert money from health, education and other vital programs.

"We have blurred vision and voodoo math here," said Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch).

Minutes later, Republicans turned the tables, refusing to cast a single vote for the plan that Burton had shepherded through the Senate as the cornerstone of a Democratic effort to rebuild the state's road system. Another part of the plan, a proposed $16-billion bond issue, is stalled in a committee and not expected to be considered until next year.

Both Republicans and Democrats predicted that the other party's action would give them fodder for next year's election debates.

"I think it's a beautiful political issue," said Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Wilmington). "I want to be on drive-time radio and say, 'Hey, you that are stuck on the freeway again, look what your Republican Assembly members did.' "

Earlier in the day, Baugh said GOP lawmakers will tour the state identifying road projects that their proposal would have built.

Assemblyman Robert Pacheco (R-Walnut) said Republicans will also remind voters that the Democratic plan would have undermined a principle of Proposition 13: that all local tax increases require a two-thirds majority vote.

Torlakson said the two-thirds requirement applies to local taxes, not to a statewide measure such as the constitutional amendment.

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