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By Jennifer Nations, Special to CALmatters

Roads in rural California counties are literally falling apart. In some Central Valley and desert towns, streets have crumbled to the point that residents say they are barely navigable.

A 2017 study found that 38 percent of California’s rural roads are in poor condition—the third highest rate in the nation.

Poor, rural communities in the state cannot afford to repair these roads on their own. Due to a lack of funding and delayed repairs, the damage to many roads is so extensive that they cannot simply be repaved, they have to be replaced. Much of this needed work is paid for by Senate Bill 1, California’s so-called “gas tax” approved by the Legislature in 2017.

A national coalition of anti-tax advocates has funded Proposition 6 on the November ballot to repeal that legislation. If passed, Proposition 6 would hurt our state’s underserved communities the most.

Backers of Proposition 6 include House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Congressman Devin Nunes, both of whom represent the Central Valley where roads are in disrepair.

California’s broken roads are frequently found in our rural, poor towns. Many residents work in low-wage jobs and have limited access to high-performing schools or employers who pay livable wages. Because of bad roads and inadequate public transit, they also face delays on their way to work and school.

Just look at heavily agricultural Kern County, where I grew up. More than half of the local population identifies as Hispanic and one in five residents lives under the poverty line. Here, combined state and county dollars could afford to replace only 18 miles of road each year before SB 1. At that rate, it would have taken Kern County more than 150 years to replace the roads in bad need of repair. Thanks to SB 1, funds for road repair and other infrastructure improvements have doubled.

Proposition 6 would set the gas tax rate to pre-2017 levels. Gas taxes prior to 2017 were not low compared to other states, but they were sorely outdated for the needs of our state.

The last time the Legislature approved a gas tax was in 1994. That tax had no adjustment for inflation, so it became less valuable over time. SB 1 fixed that oversight.

Yes, Californians would see a minor decrease in gas prices at the pump if Senate Bill 1 is repealed. But aside from this small change, the immediate effect would be that roads in agricultural areas of our state would remain in poor shape. Numerous projects planned throughout the state would not be completed.

Currently, the Legislature cannot approve a new tax without a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature. A legislative super-majority for new taxes makes tax increases difficult to approve.

Among its less obvious impacts, Proposition 6 would restructure the way gas taxes are approved in our state. The initiative would require that after two-thirds of the Legislature pass an increase, the electorate would need to approve that gas tax increase in a statewide vote. Approval would be unlikely.

For the millions of Californians who do not face the extreme road damage seen in underserved, rural communities, paying more at the pump probably would not be worth the promise of future road repair somewhere else.

Proposition 6 should be rejected because it would defund critical projects that local taxpayers could not otherwise afford, and it would fall hard on underserved communities in rural areas. And it should be rejected because it shifts decision-making power away from the legislators, whose job it is to carefully weigh the state’s competing financial obligations.


Jennifer Nations is a visiting scholar UC San Diego, where she is researching voting, taxation and higher education policy, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.