Fong grills DOF on shady $1B deal

Fong grills DOF on shady $1B dealBy REBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff Writer

The $1 billion in special projects linked with passage of the controversial gas-tax increase approved this month by both houses in the California legislature came into question during an Assembly hearing for SB 132, the proposed budget act of 2018.

The largest gas tax increase in history, which will cost taxpayers a minimum of $52 billion, passed with bare minimum support. Members who had initially opposed the package were allegedly wooed by Gov. Jerry Brown with promises to fund projects in their districts in exchange for their support.

The sole Republican supporter, state Sen. Anthony Canella, admitted that his district would benefit from a $400-million investment that would extend a commuter rail line through his district.

However, Assemblyman Vince Fong confronted Mark Monroe of the Department of Finance on the ethics of the deal. Fong cited California Highway Code, section 167, which states that the budget shall not include appropriations for specific transportation improvement projects, and the legislature shall not enact legislation that caters to individual projects.

“This apparent prohibition is intended to ensure that projects are funded based on statewide needs, rather than on any political dynamics,” said Fong, who opposed the gas tax in favor for a plan that compelled the state to use existing funds dedicated to transportation for repairs and improvements.

“How is this bill consistent with state law, which prohibits earmarks such as these?”

Monroe conceded that Fong was correct about the law, but noted that the plan is “part of a broader package … so there are various ways that we fund these.”

Fong pressed for a confirmation of the state prohibition on earmarks for specific projects.

“Well, the section of the code you’re referencing does exist,” said Monroe. “But historically, the mechanism for funding projects like this has been done a number of ways.”

Fong pointed out that the California Transportation Commission is tasked with allocating projects based on needs and asked for justification for bypassing the CTC for these project approvals.

“This is just part of a broader negotiated budget deal,” said Monroe.

“So if we are not relying on the expertise of the CTC, are you saying these projects were chosen because of [the gas tax]?” asked Fong.

“These projects are good transportation projects,” responded Monroe.

Fong pointed out that with a $750-million backlog of projects approved in the CTC, the governor has little justification for fast-tracking $1 billion in special projects.

“We are appropriating them here, apparently, and bypassing the CTC,” said Fong. “Who determined that these were worthy projects if it wasn’t the CTC?”

After a long pause and an unrelated response from another member of the discussion, Monroe finally admitted that the projects bypassed the CTC.

The bill passed out of the committee and now awaits a vote from the Assembly.

Fong continues to oppose the measure, calling for transparency and accountability in order to restore the public’s trust in government.

For a link to the budget committee exchange, see bit.ly/2oIVlDR. For a link to the floor discussion, see bit.ly/2q1SSph.

Pictured: Assemblyman Vince Fong during a committee hearing on the proposed state budget. -- Courtesy photo

Story First Published: 2017-04-28