New gas tax will save the golden state

by Randy Wilde

California is under water — but not from the rising sea level just yet. No, this deluge is of the financial sort. California faces a deficit of $28 billion; the equivalent of the entire state budgets of Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana and eight other states combined. Imagine you are Gov. Jerry Brown.

You need to come up with $28 billion to keep treading water. Do you find ways to cut costs by streamlining the state bureaucracy? Of course you do. Do you cut nonessential and costly programs such as city redevelopment grants? Sounds like a good option. We’re making progress, but these measures are just a drop in the bucket. How do you bail out the rest of the water?

Health and social services, public safety, as well as K-12 and higher education account for 90 percent of the current budget. Any significant cuts are going to have to fall on these vital and sensitive areas.

Our state is at a crossroads. Neither road is easy.

Option one is to make painful budget cuts that abandon our sick or disabled and push education out of reach for even more of our population. And eventually, after fighting for every breath of air for another decade or so, we might flail our way back to shore. As difficult as this may seem, given today’s political climate, it is by far the more expedient and popular choice. This long, painful, yet more palatable road is the one Brown seems to have chosen.

The governor’s proposed budget reduces funding for health and social services by 21.5 percent and slashes higher education funding by 15.8 percent. Cutting investment in the human capital that drives the Californian economy is more than a little shortsighted. Our state needs a giant release valve to drain the floodwater, not a slowly deflating life preserver.

Option two relies on that dreaded three-letter word that just so happens to be the entire basis of our structured, modern civilization. Supplemented by a streamlined bureaucracy and small, targeted cuts, increasing revenue is the socially responsible and farsighted solution, no matter how unpopular it may be. Hear me out before you start burning this newspaper in disgust.

There is one proposed measure that has the potential to lower the water level back below our heads with one fell swoop, and it does not include any change to income or sales tax.

Increasing the tax on gasoline, while unglamorous and admittedly painful, can accomplish all of this and more. Proposals range from an additional 25 cents to $1 per gallon, raising a maximum of $15 billion. A more modest tax level could be supplemented by returning vehicle license fees to 2 percent of a car’s value — pre-governator levels — and instituting a crude oil severance tax of almost 10 percent on oil drilled in our state, together generating approximately $5.8 billion.

These actions could single-handedly evaporate more than half of the deficit. And California would by no means be the first state to impose such measures or the most extreme case.

A tax on gasoline would encourage investment and growth in new industries, improve public health and promote self-sufficiency for local communities and for the state.

More realistic gas prices that reflect the fuel’s many negative externalities would be a huge boon for alternative industries. We could bring about a renaissance of public transportation and a new generation of fuel-efficient vehicles and technologies. California needs to be a leader in the new green economy.

An increase in gas taxes would vastly improve public health and lead to massive savings in health care costs. More expensive prices at the pump would discourage unnecessary driving and encourage increased walking and biking as part of a healthier, more active lifestyle. Fewer emissions would mean less pollution and cleaner air, reducing respiratory problems. Increased transportation costs would also lead to fresher and more locally oriented food production. Reduced traffic stands to save thousands of lives annually in avoided car accidents.

Higher transportation costs would foster community self-sufficiency. Urban areas would no longer be dirty, congested food deserts, but thriving, revitalized communities with efficient transportation networks. Gas taxes can also help California become more self-sufficient as a state by breaking our dangerous addiction to foreign oil.

But unless we Californians are willing to tell our elected officials we are ready to make this sacrifice to save our state and create a brighter future, there will be absolutely no political will in Sacramento. In fact, this option will be politically impossible without massive grassroots support to counter the deep-pocketed interests of the oil and auto industries. These corporate sharks would rather have us sink than take any hit to their bottom line.

It’s time to sink or swim. It may be a giant leap, but if we don’t take drastic action we will surely drown. Buckle up at home, and support the right decision.

—Randy Wilde is an international security and conflict resolution junior.

— The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.