Is the gas tax putting California’s most valuable resource in jeopardy?

California

One of the most hotly debated and controversial ballot measures – Proposition 6 – was voted down in November, giving the green light for California’s gas tax.

It protects billions of dollars in funding for road maintenance and other projects, but could it put the state’s most valuable resource in jeopardy?

The wheels are in motion to fix California roads, highways and bridges.

Caltrans is expected to collect more than $4 billion by this June over the last year just from the gas tax.

Roughly $147 million has been set aside for Fresno, Madera, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties.

But the backbone of the Central Valley, our farmers, are feeling the pinch at the pumps even more than other Californians, two prominent Valley farmers telling me the gas tax is the beginning of the end for the Valley’s most precious commodity.

Paul Betancourt has been farming in Kerman for nearly four decades. From wheat to cotton to almonds, but as of this week betancourt is finalizing a deal to sell off 700 acres of his wheat and cotton farm saying the gas tax bill was the final straw.

“As I look over the horizon, I don’t see business conditions for people who produce in the state of California to get better, and it’s a tragic thing,” Betancourt said. “When it did get to the ballot box, yes meant no and no meant yes. That kind of foolishness is petty politics; that boat sailed, and I’m saddled with these kind of costs.”

Betancourt said he would celebrate with his employees, who have become just like family, when they were able to make $40,000 off a million-dollar operation year in and year out.

He says the extra 19-cent tax per gallon for diesel to transport his product is a back-breaker, saying he’s out another $3,000 to $5,000 a year from the gas tax.
     
“This is a cost that farmers have to absorb that the marketplace does not reward them for,” Betancourt said.

Betancourt will keep his almond crop of 25 acres, but he believes tens of thousands of Valley farmers are having the same conversation at the dinner table – whether or not to sell off their land and leave the state.

Kieth Nilmeier is a fourth generation farmer. His family started farming in the Valley in the 1890s.

“I’m seriously considering selling out and moving to Tennessee,” he said.

Nilmeier has grown his 240 acres of citrus, grapes and peaches into a $10 million a year operation alongside his trucking company.

He says he’s lucky to rake in $150,000 a year, and he made more money back in 1973 than he does today.

“There’s a lot of peaches in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and all of that; there’s a big draw these states are advertising to take us away. When’s california going to wake up?” Nilmeier said.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson says the gas tax bill will squash the dreams for the next generation of farmers. He believes the state is losing its culture of agriculture – meaning the pride of ownership.

“The United States doesn’t understand that agriculture is and should be a national security interest,” Patterson said. “I hope that people will come to their senses and undo some these kinds of things in order just to have the kind of California that was an opportunity state and have big dreams. Now the state is just a wet blanket on top of people’s dreams.”

Ryan Jacobsen with the Fresno County Farm Bureau says the gas tax not only may cripple some farmers but the extra cost could trickle down to other residents at the grocery store.

“Whether it’s the transportation of trucking companies that are inbetween the farm and the retailer puts on an additional cost that usually is passed on to the consumer,” Jacobsen said.

Farmers like Betancourt and Nilmeier say fixing our roads is something we all want to see, but ultimately they say, the gas tax is driving the farming community into the ground.

Betancourt said, “We make these products like nobody else in the world, and now there’s a risk of it all going away because of some misguided choices by folks.”

KSEE24 reached out to three Democrats for their point of view on this report.

Congressman TJ Cox and Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula declined to comment, and Congressman Jim Costa said he could not find time in his schedule.

Meanwhile Caltrans is not wasting any time putting the gas tax money to work – already completing 13 of the 18 construction projects throughout the Central Valley.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.