Transportation Funding Changes Fail at the Ballot Box

Voters in Colorado, Missouri and Utah rejected new money sources for roads, while Californians opted to keep a recent gas tax hike.
by | November 7, 2018
Construction workers paving a road.
(Shutterstock)

SPEED READ:

  • Voters in four states -- California, Colorado, Missouri and Utah -- faced ballot measures this year that would have affected gas taxes or transportation funding.
  • California voters decided not to roll back a gas tax that's only a year old, while Missouri voters chose not to raise the state's fuel tax for the first time in 22 years. Meanwhile, Colorado voters rejected two conflicting ballot measures, and Utah citizens advised against becoming only the second state to use gas tax money to fund schools.
 

Transportation advocates got a mixed message Tuesday on how much of a stomach the public has for paying more for infrastructure improvements.

In the biggest transportation-related measure of the night, California voters opted to keep a recently enacted gas tax hike to pay for a major infrastructure program there. Republican candidates had been pushing for a repeal of the tax, as a way of protesting spending by the Democratically controlled legislature and as a way of increasing turnout of GOP voters for other key races Tuesday. But in early returns, only 45 percent of voters were supporting the rollback, while 55 percent opposed it.

But voters in three other states -- Colorado, Missouri and Utah -- balked at the prospect of raising more transportation money themselves.

The questions that voters in the four states faced were all the more contentious because they dealt directly with issues that have stymied lawmakers for months, and in most cases, years.

It is unusual to see so many statewide ballot measures on transportation funding; local measures are much more common. But these four statewide transportation questions could be in reaction to a growing willingness by state lawmakers to raise taxes or find other sources of new money to improve roads and other infrastructure. Over the last six years, 31 states have increased revenues for transportation, according to Joung Lee, the policy director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Putting transportation funding questions to voters can be risky, at least for advocates hoping for more infrastructure money. Voters tend to respond viscerally to gas tax increases because it's easier for them to calculate how much more they'd be paying compared to, say, changes to property tax levies or income tax rates. That's because the federal government and most states use simple per-gallon taxes for motor fuels.

Both Democratic and Republican voters have rallied against gas tax hikes in the past. Four years ago, for example, voters in overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts opted to scale back a newly passed gas tax increase so that its rate would no longer adjust with inflation.

 

California Sticks With Its One-Year-Old Gas Tax

Republicans tried to use a strategy similar to the one in Massachusetts four years ago to make headway this year in another seemingly Democratic stronghold: California.

The three top Republicans in the U.S. House all contributed to efforts to pass Proposition 6, which would have repealed a gas tax hike that is paying for a $54 billion package to build and repair infrastructure. Only one of them -- U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy -- is from California.

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, who lost to Democratic nominee Gavin Newsom, made the gas tax repeal a centerpiece of his campaign. “This gas tax is just one element of how the politicians are doing the bidding of the donors and the special interests, and are ignoring the needs of working Californians,” he told reporters shortly after the primary.

Jerry Brown, the outgoing Democratic governor, pushed hard for the 2017 transportation package that included the 12-cent gas tax hike. Brown personally lobbied lawmakers and cut deals to get the legislation to his desk, and, in the process, scored a major win on an issue that transportation advocates had been spinning their wheels on for nearly three decades.

This year's ballot measure had sought to upend that law.

Carl DeMaio, a talk radio host and former San Diego city council member who led the repeal effort, said the campaign was tapping into the “continual frustration for motorists and taxpayers,” and he called the gas tax a “regressive tax that hurts working families.”

The new law, DeMaio said, would impact working families by increasing the cost of gas, raising vehicle registration fees and indirectly increasing the costs of consumer goods because of a hike in diesel taxes. That’s especially onerous, he said, because California’s cost of living is so high already, and the only way that lower-income families can find housing is to drive long distances -- increasing the gas taxes they pay.

DeMaio also alleged that gas tax money is being “stolen” by state politicians for projects that don’t benefit motorists, including high-speed rail, mass transit and so-called road diets (in which transportation agencies reduce the number of travel lanes on a street to promote safety). He maintained that those efforts don’t reduce congestion and are “infuriating to motorists.”

And finally DeMaio said that state transportation employees are paid excessively and given generous retirement benefits, driving up the costs of California’s transportation projects. He cited a 2014 report from legislative auditors who concluded that CalTrans, the state's transportation agency, was overstaffed by 3,500 workers. The gas tax money, he said, “is not going to fill potholes; it’s going to fill pensions.” 

When Politifact looked into assertions last year that gas tax money was being diverted, it judged those to be “mostly false.” And officials from the Department of Finance, which helps prepare CalTrans' budget requests, say the auditors' approach regarding transportation staffing numbers was too simplistic, and didn't account for the fact that projects need more engineering work in the early stages of projects.

But DeMaio's arguments clearly struck a nerve, for a little while, anyway. Voters ousted a Democratic lawmaker, state Sen. Josh Newman, in a recall election in June because of his pivotal role in passing the gas tax increase.

Some 230 groups, which include local governments, transit agencies, labor unions, businesses and advocates for walkable neighborhoods, opposed the repeal effort. They argued that backing out of the law would cut jobs, hurt safety and increase commute times, not to mention create havoc with projects that are already under way or slated for construction.

“Cities have thousands of local transportation projects already in the pipeline that will make our roads safer and our commutes better. We have an obligation to every citizen and California driver to defeat this initiative,” Carolyn Coleman, the executive director of the League of California Cities, said in a statement.

No Support for Higher Gas Tax in Missouri

In Missouri, unlike California, there was no organized opposition to a ballot measure that would have raised the state's fuel taxes for the first time since 1996.

But nearly 54 percent of Missourians voted against the idea on Tuesday.

Just the process of getting the question to the ballot box took Missouri lawmakers more than eight years. Transportation funds dried up when a 15-year road plan, which had been passed in the early 1990s, expired just as the Great Recession hit. The Obama federal stimulus package helped for a while, but most of that money stopped flowing after 2010.

Legislators explored lots of ways to raise transportation money in the meantime. They toyed with the idea of tolling Interstate 70 between St. Louis and Kansas City. Republican lawmakers asked voters to raise the gas tax in 2014, but they drafted it in such a way that transit agencies, local officials and the state’s Democratic governor at the time opposed it. The measure ultimately failed.

This time around, the gas tax measure was supported by Gov. Mike Parson, the newly installed Republican governor, and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the state’s most prominent Democrat, who was also defeated for reelection Tuesday.

“Missouri officeholders know we can’t keep going how we’re going. It’s a nonpartisan issue, and the bill passed with bipartisan support,” said Scott Charton, a spokesman for SaferMO.com, the group promoting the effort.

But amid a high-profile U.S. Senate race and several more prominent ballot measures, that message apparently never sank in with voters.

Gas Tax Confusion in Colorado

Colorado voters, meanwhile, had a trickier choice before them. They had the option of supporting a small transportation bond package with no new taxes, a bigger one that comes with a sales tax, or none of the above.

They chose none of the above. Roughly three of every five voters rejected both of their options.

The confusing situation was the result of three different efforts to address transportation funding, which has become a perennial debate in the Capitol.

The Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank, pushed a plan called “Fix Our Damn Roads.” It was a small bond package of $3.5 billion; lawmakers would have had to come up with $250 million a year to repay the debt. The measure’s supporters said their plan would force lawmakers to better prioritize spending to focus on roads.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, pushed a plan to raise about $20 billion over the next two decades. That measure would have relied on a sales tax hike of 0.62 percentage points to back the new bonds. The reliance on a sales tax -- rather than a gas tax, for instance -- would have been unusual but not unheard of. Virginia, for example, raised its sales tax rate as part of a larger transportation package in 2013. And Connecticut lawmakers dedicated a portion of sales tax receipts to transportation two years later.

But lawmakers this year passed a new transportation law that could have accommodated both, either or neither of those measures. Legislators found $645 million in general funds for transportation over the next two years. That would come on top of the money for the bonding measures. But now that both the bonding measures failed this year, the legislature will ask voters to pass a $2.3 billion bond package next year.

Should a Higher Gas Tax in Utah Fund Schools?

Finally, Utahns got a chance to weigh in on whether lawmakers should raise their state’s gas tax, even though most of the money would go to schools, not roads. Two-thirds of Utah voters rejected that idea.

The advisory question came as part of a bigger deal that Utah lawmakers reached in order to fend off a ballot measure that would have increased the state’s income and sales taxes to generate $715 million for schools. Polls showed that a majority of Utahns supported the “Our Schools Now” initiative before the deal was struck.

Instead, voters were asked whether they supported a 10-cent gas tax increase, which is expected to raise $120 million. Thirty percent of the new money would have gone toward local roads, while the rest would have been dedicated to education. Of course, lawmakers would have had to pass the changes for them to take effect, something which is still possible but unlikely given the election results.

If lawmakers do make the changes, it would be the third time since 2015 that Utah lawmakers tinkered with their state’s fuel taxes. Legislators repealed the state’s per-gallon fuel taxes in 2015 and replaced them with a structure more like the sales tax, where the taxes are based on the price of fuel. It amounted to a tax increase of 4.5 cents per gallon. But when gas prices dropped two years later, lawmakers tweaked the formula to make sure the state wouldn’t lose out on transportation revenue.

Using gas tax money for schools is rare. Only Texas uses a similar mechanism to fund schools, says Lee of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. In fact, most states seem to be headed in the opposite direction. It’s much more common, he says, for states these days to be adding protections -- often referred to as “lockboxes” -- to make sure that fuel taxes are only used for transportation purposes.

Still, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert praised the ballot measure, and the larger compromise package, when the deal was struck in May. "It's really staving off a significant tax increase for a minimal tax increase and will put money into education, put money into roads,” he said. “It's win, win, win all the way around.”

For a summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this referred to gas tax measures in Missouri as sales tax measures.