Oil tax for higher education removed from Assembly Bill

Timothy Sandoval

Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico and the California Faculty Association said they would not give up the fight to find a source of revenue for higher education.

The most recent attempt to fund higher education came in the form of Assembly Bill 656, authored by Torrico and supported primarily by the CFA.

The bill has made it through the state Assembly, but the Appropriations Committee removed the 9.9 percent severance tax on oil that would have been used to fund higher education, and replaced it with a reporting requirement.

Under the revised bill, the Board of Equalization would only report the funds that would have gone to higher education if the severance tax on oil were in effect.

“Finding a source of funding for higher education will go on,” said Lillian Taiz, president of the CFA and professor of history at CSU Los Angeles. “And this is a fight we will continue to wage with whatever mechanism we are able to develop to continue the fight.”

Ryan Spencer, consultant for Torrico, said that Torrico would not abandon the issue either.

“The issue is not dead in my boss’s mind,” Spencer said.

The CFA and Torrico said they would still lobby to have the severance tax on oil added to AB 656 while it moves through the state Senate.

Spencer said if AB 656 does not pass, Torrico is unsure if he will offer new legislation.

The CFA also has no specifics on what it will do if AB 656 does not pass.

“We have not given up the fight for AB 656,” said David Balla-Hawkins, legislative director of the CFA. “656 is the horse we are riding, and we are going to keep riding it until we can get it signed off on.”

The Assembly Appropriations Committee, controlled by Democrats, eliminated the severance tax on oil so the bill would not require a two-thirds majority vote – the threshold for any new tax to pass through the state Legislature. A two-thirds majority vote in the Assembly would have required Republican support, which the bill did not have.

“We were forced to make that change,” Spencer said. “If we didn’t, it would have died in the Assembly.”

The bill is now in the state Senate where it faces similar hurdles.

Republicans control 14 seats, enough to block any new tax proposed by Democrats in the state Senate.

“It’s definitely going to be difficult,” Spencer said. “But my boss is up to the challenge.”

If the Senate amends the bill to include the severance tax on oil, then the bill would go back to the Assembly to vote on the amended bill.

Ron Nehring, California Republican Party Chairman, said the bill was nothing more than a backdoor tax on oil.

“The Democrats in Sacramento should stop promoting higher taxes and start working on more responsible solutions,” Nehring said.

Nehring said the bill would add 17 cents to every gallon of gas purchased by California drivers.

Many California Republicans have also signed a no-new-tax pledge as part of a national movement for GOP lawmakers.

The bill was met with much opposition from oil interests, Balla-Hawkins said.

“They really didn’t want this legislation to get passed,” Balla-Hawkins said. “They don’t want an oil tax that will cut into their profits.”

In the last committee hearing on the bill, about 200 oil employees rallied and testified against the bill. Their complaints mostly were that it would hurt smaller oil refineries and would eliminate jobs.

Spencer said most of the complaints were untrue.

“It is not like we are going after the mom-and-pop oil refineries,” Spencer said.

The Big Four, Chevron, Shell, Occidental and Exxon, own 70 percent of the oil in California and have made record profits in the past few years, Spencer said.

California is the only state that does not tax oil.

Taiz said the bill has been extraordinary for higher education.

“I have never seen anything quite like this,” Taiz said. “I don’t think that we have ever had the opportunity to really talk about the need for serious public funding for higher education in my lifetime.”

Taiz said she is unsure if higher education would have been a high priority for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his state budget proposal had it not been for the attention generated by AB 656.

“If it wasn’t for AB 656, who knows,” Taiz said.

Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal contains a $305 million increase in funding to higher education, as well as $62 million for new student growth.

Balla-Hawkins said the money for student growth is contingent on federal funding, which he believes is unlikely to come through.

Schwarzenegger, in his State of the State Address, also proposed a constitutional amendment that would mandate that spending on prisons would never exceed spending on higher education.

Timothy Sandoval can be reached at [email protected].