Pen and sword; train and gas tax

April 6, 2018

“The pen is mightier than the sword.”


— Edward Bulwer-Lytton,


Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, 1839

Oh yeah, tell that to Caesar


In politics, “pen and sword” is an expression comparable to “guns and butter” in economics. But, in California politics, a better contrast might be “bullet train and gas tax.”


The guns-and-butter analogy conveys the crux of the ongoing argument regarding priorities in national spending. “Guns” represents expenditures on the military and defense; whereas “butter” symbolizes investment in the production of goods and services for domestic consumption.


The “either-or” nature of the guns-and-butter debate was probably most blatantly expressed during the rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in Germany. In 1936, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels stated, “We can do without butter, but, despite all our love of peace, not without arms. One cannot shoot with butter, but with guns.” His argument was bolstered by Hermann Göring, who said, “Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat.”

Really, no choice


In California, we don’t have to choose whether to be fat or powerful. We’re already seen as being fat, and we lost any power that we might once have had a long time ago. I’m using “fat” in the economic sense, as in “we have lots of money to burn.” And our “power” at the ballot box has been usurped by gerrymandering and a legislature that is determined to “trim the fat” of the voters.


A year ago, the legislature passed SB1, known as the Road Repair and Accountability Act, that will add 12 cents per gallon in gasoline taxes. Many groups that opposed the bill argued that, in the past, money that was earmarked for road repair was siphoned off to other projects. But, taking full advantage of the power of his pen, Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law.


Today, a wave of resentment is starting to crest. Many Californians of every political stripe seem eager to repeal SB1, even though they realize that the state’s infrastructure desperately needs help. Their revolt is bolstered by the governor’s plan to build a high-speed-rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with a few spurs branching off along the way. The controversial project has become even more contentious as the latest price tag has been revealed.


In mid-March, the California High Speed Rail Authority released its latest plan, which increases the projected cost from $63 billion to $77 billion. In addition, the expected opening of the system has been delayed until 2033. These soaring costs and delays have been experienced even as the state is building the easiest part of the system — the rail running through the flat Central Valley. Critics say, “Just wait until engineers try to build over or through the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains.”

Lowered expectations


Steven Greenhut of the California Policy Center reports that Governor Brown unleashed a tirade recently when he talked to union officials. He spoke of overruns and delays as “bulls--t,” and said he is “so tired of all the nonsense that I read in the paper and you hear from other politicians.” He cautioned that “we won’t let these small-minded people intimidate us into lowering of expectations.”


However, we Californians have already had our expectations lowered by constantly shifting rail alignments (remember that the first section to be built was supposed to run from Borden to Corcoran), construction delays, and ever-increasing cost estimates. In fact, in an unofficial statement, the governor’s own high-speed-rail authority says that the ultimate price of the system could top $100 billion.

SB1 and the Gas Tax


Now, to add insult to injury, the state is using the provisions of SB1 to supplement the existing tax on gasoline. The additional 12 cents per gallon is a small part of the overall taxes and fees that we pay.


According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the total amount of excise taxes reached 41.7 cents per gallon on Nov. 1, 2017, and they’ll eventually be fixed at 47.2 cents per gallon in July, 2019. But, according to Rob Nikolewski, writing for the Union-Tribune, the story “doesn’t end there because there are other taxes and fees on gasoline already in effect.”


We pay an underground storage tank fee that is approximately 2 cents per gallon. The state justifies this because California has an “overwhelming number of gas stations.” Additionally, the Golden State charges a sales tax on gasoline, and its only one of six states to do so. Although the amount fluctuates, it averages about 9 cents per gallon.


In 2019, when the full effect of SB1 is realized, we will be paying 47.3 cents in primary and secondary excise taxes, 2 cents on the underground storage tank fee, and 9 cents in sales tax for a grand total of 58.3 cents per gallon in state taxes and fees. But wait; there’s more. We are also responsible for paying a federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. So, at the station, we forked out 76.7 cents a gallon for state and federal taxes and fees. Diesel drivers have been hit even harder.


Then, over and above these economic indignities, SB1 includes an additional vehicle licensing fee that was put into effect this year. It ranges from $25 for cars valued at less than $5,000 to $175 on autos worth $60,000 or more. And, of course, the state legislators didn’t forget about owners of electric cars. Beginning on July 1, 2020, those who drive ZEV’s (zero emission vehicles) will be charged $100 because, after all, they use the roads, too. And, all of this is piled on top of the fact that Californians pay an average of 67 cents more per gallon than the national average for regular gasoline. This augmented price is due to the state’s requirement for cleaner-burning gasoline that is more expensive to produce.


Steven Greenhut sums up the situation regarding the gas tax and the high-speed rail: “After all, when a homeowner is out of money and the roof is leaking, he doesn’t take a loan to put in a new hot tub.” That’s why many prognosticators foresee voters using their sword to cut out the gas-tax increase in November.


• • •


Jim Glynn may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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