Bring back the car tax

"Would you pay $200 per year to save public education, parks, and health services in California?"

EDITORIAL Assemblymember Mark Leno has shared with us some numbers from the legislature's budget office, and they're pretty compelling. Of the $14.5 billion shortfall the governor says we'll see in the next 18 months, a full $9.36 billion — 65 percent — comes from exactly one source. That's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political decision to get rid of the state's motor vehicle license fee. He calls it the car tax.

It's crazy: for years the people of California paid the fee, which used to be 2 percent of the car's value, to register their cars. It's not a perfect tax, but it's not a terrible one — people with expensive cars pay more — and it brought in a huge amount of money. When Schwarzenegger ran for office he promised to get rid of it, and that's one of the first things he did after he was elected — but he never explained how the state was going to cover the cost.

California hasn't been overspending on education and parks. It hasn't been wasting huge amounts of money on social services or sending too much to cities. The state was already living on a rather modest budget. And then along came the recession, the huge interest payments ($2 billion) on the governor's recent bail-out bonds, and the elimination of the vehicle license fee, and suddenly, there's a massive budget shortfall.

The legislature's pretty hamstrung here: Leno and some others will try, and try mightily, to bring in some new money, but it takes two-thirds of the State Assembly and the State Senate to pass a budget, and the Republicans, who have sworn on Ronald Reagan's grave never to raise taxes, control more than a third of each house. And everyone, even the liberal Democrats, agrees that if you take a poll, the vast majority of Californians will oppose reinstating the dreaded "car tax."

But if you asked the question right — "Would you pay $200 per year to save public education, parks, and health services in California?" — you might get a better answer. This needs to be a massive, statewide campaign and education program — because unless we can turn around sentiment on the vehicle license fee, the next few years are going to be very, very ugly