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California math: 1 vote = $500 million in road, rail work

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — How much is one vote worth in the California state Senate? A half-billion dollars, if it’s linked to a big tax hike to pay for overdue road repairs.

The key vote to raise gas taxes and vehicle fees came late Thursday from Sen. Anthony Cannella, a little-known Republican and the only GOP member of the heavily Democratic Legislature to vote for the bill.

In return he won a promise of $400 million for a railroad extension into his Central Valley district in California’s agricultural heartland and a $100 million parkway project for the University of California, Merced.

Another $427 million will go to the overlapping districts represented by Sen. Richard Roth of Riverside and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes of Corona, both Democrats. In a joint statement they claimed credit for delivering “Riverside County’s fair share” to their constituents.

The deal negotiated by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders passed without a vote to spare and will raise gas taxes by 43 percent, or 12 cents a gallon, while also increasing diesel taxes. The hikes take effect Nov. 1.

The plan aims to raise $54.2 billion for road and bridge repairs, mass transit and other projects over 10 years.

Assembly Minority Leader Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley, called it “a deal so bad they needed $1 billion in pork to buy the votes to pass it.” Republicans argued it puts an unneeded burden on overtaxed Californians.

Cannella, 48, has a history of working with the Democratic majority, a rarity among legislative Republicans.

He does so out of political necessity — he represents a sprawling agricultural district where Republicans are outnumbered 46 percent to 29 percent by Democrats. Nearly two-thirds of his constituents are Latinos.

The son of Sal Cannella, a former Democratic state assemblyman in the 1990s, he will be term-limited out of office after next year.

Although he’s brought ire from fellow Republicans, he may have broadened his appeal if he chooses to run for another office, said Mark Keppler, a public affairs professor and director of the Maddy Institute at California State University, Fresno.

“He’s positioned himself as a moderate Republican, frankly similar to that group of moderate Democrats that are substantial both in the Legislature and the population generally,” Keppler said. “He could potentially attract those independent voters, moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans.”

Cannella narrowly won his open Senate seat in 2010 with help from about $1.4 million in spending by an independent expenditure committee funded by the California Chamber of Commerce, which supported the gas tax and vehicle fee hikes.

He was one of the few Republican candidates endorsed by the California Labor Federation, made up of 1,200 affiliated unions, when he won re-election four years ago.

His vote was key Thursday after Democratic state Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda remained opposed despite public lobbying by Gov. Jerry Brown. That meant Senate Democrats needed one Republican to reach the 27-vote supermajority required to enact tax increases.

Cannella said he expects Republicans to be angry, but defended his vote as necessary for his constituents.

“Look, I’m sure there’s going to be some blowback, but for me it was important,” he said outside the Senate chamber after the vote. “We have to maintain our roads. And these other projects are important as well.”

Cannella is vice president of NorthStar Engineering Group, which does engineering, design and survey work for public and private projects including a high school, police station and medical facility.

Brown, a Democrat, praised Cannella late Thursday as “a civil engineer who knows what it means to build roads.”

“You’ll get a train going to the Central Valley … projects and parks in some of the poorest neighborhoods in California. Hallelujah,” Brown said. “Relative to 52 billion, it’s all pretty modest.”

Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced, whose district overlaps Cannella’s, also voted for the plan.

“For our community … we’ve got some really good stuff here,” Gray said.

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Associated Press Writer Jonathan J. Cooper contributed to this story.

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