Jerry Brown fell into the snake-pit of contemporary American politics a couple of weeks ago when he referred to opponents of a new hike in gas taxes as “freeloaders.”
Boom. Within days, the nationwide network of right-wing websites exploded with indignation, twisting Brown’s quite accurate, if impolite, remarks into a denunciation of every taxpayer.
“If you live in California, have a job and pay taxes Governor Jerry Brown would like you to know that you’re a freeloader and he’s tired of your complaining,” trumpeted RedState, one of the many such websites.
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As skewed versions of Brown’s remarks bounced around the internet, they became even more abbreviated and distorted.
“I recently read that Gov Brown called all California taxpayers freeloaders,” one reader wrote yours truly this week, citing a version in an online newsletter called “Legal Insurrection.”
So what really happened on May 12?
After signing the hike in gas taxes and other auto-related fees to raise $5-plus billion a year for state and local roadway maintenance and local transit systems, Brown visited Orange County to defend a Democratic state senator, Josh Newman, who voted for the bill and now faces a potential recall.
“Roads require money to fix,” Brown said. “Republicans say there’s a magic source of money (but) it doesn’t exist. “You want to borrow money and pay double? Or do nothing? Or take money from universities?”
“The freeloaders, I’ve had enough of them,” Brown continued, arguing that the tax and fee hikes merely adjust those charges to what motorists were paying 30 years ago with inflation.
“They have a president that doesn’t tell the truth, and they’re following suit,” Brown said of Republicans who opposed the taxes, want to repeal them via initiative and want to oust Newman.
Brown’s dismissal of the Republican assertion that there’s a magic source of maintenance money is absolutely on point.
Yes, as critics of the taxes have often pointed out, the state has occasionally borrowed money from transportation accounts to bail out the distressed general fund budget. But Brown included those loans in the $30 billion “wall of debt” he inherited from predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger and has been repaying them.
Moreover, that debt ($706 million now) is minuscule compared to the multibillion-dollar backlog of maintenance that has given California’s roads one of the nation’s worst pavement condition levels. Anyone who has driven in other states, including those in the much-poorer Deep South, can attest to our shameful, pothole-scarred roads.
Roadways should be maintained with taxes and fees on those who use them. The user-pays principle is long established and fair, and deviating from it, as we have done by floating bond issues repaid from general revenues, is bad public policy.
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The package averages 1.6 cents for each of the 330 billion miles Californians drive each year, maybe a few dollars a month for the average motorist.
Anyone who drives this Memorial Day weekend and doesn’t want to pay to maintain roads is, as Brown says, a freeloader.