Lowenthal, Schwarzenegger disagree on stalled container fee
The fait accompli of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signing a statewide $30-per-TEU fee has come in question over the past several weeks, as disagreements between the governor's office and the bill's author polarized over who will control the projected $500 million a year raised by the fee.
The Ports Investment Bill (SB974), authored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, passed the Legislature earlier this month and was slated to head to the governor's office for a signature. However, the bill has since joined hundreds of other bills in legislative limbo due to Schwarzenegger's fiat that he would not sign any bill while the state budget, still being argued in the Legislature, remains unresolved.
SB974 would impose the per-TEU fee on containers moving through the ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland and is projected to raise upwards of $500 million annually to be split equally between goods movement infrastructure and environmental projects throughout the state. Under terms of the bill, the fee would be borne by beneficial cargo owners.
The third incarnation of Lowenthal's statewide container fee proposal, the bill has appeared and disappeared several times over the past year. Last September, under threat of a gubernatorial veto, Lowenthal reached an agreement with Schwarzenegger to shelve the bill until this year's legislative session. The move was also seen at the time as an effort to allow the Southern California ports more time to impose their own local container taxes, which both have since done.
At the time, it was widely assumed the agreement virtually guaranteed Schwarzenegger's signature if the bill reached his desk and in statements following the agreement, the governor said he supported a statewide container fee.
However, Schwarzenegger is now looking to add last-minute amendments to the bill giving control of at least some of the potential funds raised by the container fee to the California Air Resources Board.
Lowenthal opposes the governor's proposed amendments, fearing the changes could divert funds from areas specifically targeted in the bill.
'We’re willing to work with the administration but we’re not emasculating the bill,' Lowenthal told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. 'The money has to stay where the problem is.'
Lowenthal himself amended the bill shortly before its final Assembly vote last month to include more than 140 infrastructure projects — most grade separations of rail and street traffic in the Inland Empire.
'We’re playing a game of chicken,' Lowenthal told the Press-Enterprise. 'There’s a lot of money on the table.'
According to attendees of a meeting held with the governor's staff and other state agencies the day before the bill was called for a state Senate vote earlier this month, Lowenthal walked out of the meeting over Schwarzenegger's proposed amendments.
At a follow-up meeting a week later, and after the bill had passed the Legislature, the governor's staff reportedly berated Lowenthal's staff for 'lying' and 'not negotiating in good faith.'
The governor's office has refused to discuss the proposed amendments to SB974.
Lowenthal's office declined to comment on the substance of either meeting, but said that discussions are ongoing with the governor.
Attendees of the second meeting, which also included representatives of CARB, the California Environmental Protection Agency, and the ports of Oakland and Los Angeles, report that the governor's amendments want to hold the SB974 money to the same criteria as the state's Proposition 1b transportation funds.
Proponents of Lowenthal's current version of the bill are concerned that this situation could lead to SB974 money being spent on Prop 1b-type capacity-increasing infrastructure projects. Many of the environmental and other groups that have supported SB974 have cited the bill's focus on projects that improve goods movement efficiency without increasing overall capacity, which they believe will lead to even more goods movement-related pollution.
Lowenthal's bill, like the rest of those held under the gun by the governor's boycott, faces an end of August deadline to obtain a gubernatorial signature. While bills on the governor's desk would become law automatically after the deadline, Schwarzenegger has said that if the state budget is not approved by the legislative deadline, he will veto all of them. ' Keith Higginbotham