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State Bill Would Eliminate Two-Thirds Majority Vote to Approve Anti-Congestion Fee

A state Assembly committee began considering a bill today that would allow the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to put proposed gas fees before voters that would require a simple-majority approval, rather than a two-thirds majority.

Revenue from the fees would be used to fund transit, bike and pedestrian projects that can be proven to relieve traffic. The funds could also be used to build toll lanes or to make safety and maintenance improvements to highways and bridges.

The bill introduced by state Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg,D-Sacramento, would allow local planning and transportation organizations to levy congestion-reduction charges at the gas pump if a majority of voters approve the fees.

The fees could be in place for up to 30 years. Corresponding charges would be added to the vehicle registration of electric car owners.

In November 2010, voters approved Proposition 26, which forced state and local governments to begin treating fees and surcharges like taxes, requiring a two-thirds voter approval to assess new fees. However, the law provided exceptions for new fees that provide benefits specifically to those who pay the fees.

Proponents of the bill, SB 791, argue an anti-congestion fee would meet that criteria, benefiting those who would pay the new fees, namely drivers.

In 2008, more than two-thirds of Los Angeles County voters approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase to fund 12 major transit projects, including a subway to Westwood and extensions to the Gold Line light rail into the San Gabriel Valley.

Move L.A. Executive Director and former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane said it was a miracle Measure R passed with a two-thirds vote in the face of a broad economic calamity.

“But we can’t rely on miracles if we’re going to do what we need to do to make sure our transportation systems are healthy and robust,’ Zane said.“This bill provides the opportunity for congestion reduction strategies that can be approved by a sensible majority vote.’

The California Taxpayers Association, which sponsored Proposition 26, said Steinberg’s bill would not qualify as an exception.

“This bill is a gas tax plain and simple,’ spokesman David Kline said. “Any reasonable person would come to that conclusion.’

Kline said the bill would violate a provision of Proposition 26 requiring the benefits of new fees to go only to those who pay the fee and not to others. He said the owners of a company that does a lot of localized sending or receiving of products might benefit from reduced congestion, but might not necessarily pay for it.

“(Legislators) are using time and resources to try and get around the intent of the voters, instead of spending their time making an argument for the new tax,’ he said.

The anti-congestion fee would also violate Proposition 218, which requires a two-thirds vote to approve taxes earmarked for a special use, Kline
said.

Asked if the California Taxpayers Association would challenge the law in court if it passes, Kline said, “Very likely … But that’s a long way off.’

The bill was referred today to the Assembly Committee on Rules, according to Steinberg’s office.

Copyright © 2011 City News Service

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