Touted as a test of the new Democratic supermajority in Sacramento, South Bay state Sen. Ted Lieu plans to introduce a measure to triple vehicle license fees.

The constitutional amendment would restore the 2 percent vehicle license fee slashed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after he won office partly on that pledge.

The 1.35 percent transportation system user fee increase would generate an estimated $3.5 billion to $4 billion annually for roads and public transit in yet-to-be-decided proportions, Lieu said.

Buoyed by the Democratic supermajority achieved just last week, Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, plans to introduce the legislation in either December or January. He envisions the Legislature will approve the amendment and place it before voters in November 2014.

"It would be a test to see what the two-thirds (majority) Legislature means," Lieu told the editorial board of the Los Angeles News Group. "The best way for us to lose the supermajority is to overreach.

"I'm not saying it would be an easy sell," he added of the proposal. "I'm aware of the fact I may be attacked for it."

Lieu's name will be on the same ballot, although his real election battle likely will be in the June 2014 primary.

Vehicle license fees currently stand at 0.65 percent of a vehicle's value, so the increase would round that up to an even 2 percent.

Lieu said that means someone who paid $50 in vehicle license fees today would pay $150 if the amendment is approved by voters.

Ed Costantini, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Davis, said the Democratic strategy of sending the legislation to voters rather than voting for it directly appears designed to blunt criticism of the supermajority's power to raise taxes unilaterally.

"It kind of protects them because they haven't imposed anything and they can certainly wrap themselves with the mantle of democracy," Costantini said. "It also seems consistent with the pledge by the governor that any tax increases would be subject to popular vote."

Lieu's proposal was hatched by Transportation California, an industry group that includes construction companies and labor unions.

While Lieu has contemplated the idea for some time, he said Gov. Jerry Brown's administration asked him to hold off on the proposal while Proposition 30 was before voters. That measure, including increases in the sales tax and income tax for high-end earners, was approved last week.

The lobbying group has proposed several taxing mechanisms to pay for more roads.

The vehicle license fee increase is the most palatable to potential voters who have provided feedback in focus groups, said Executive Director Bert Sandman.

"Everyone realizes we need to improve our infrastructure, so the debate is really how do we go about doing this," he said. "The feeling is (raising) vehicle license fees are a more fair way of doing this than raising the gas tax because it's a regressive tax, not a progressive tax."

That's because buyers of more expensive cars would pay higher vehicle license fees under the proposal.

The idea is to backfill revenue lost from the sunset of Proposition 1B, passed by voters in 2006, Sandman said.

Transportation California estimates there is a $5.4 billion shortfall to upgrade state highways.

The constitutional amendment is seen as a more permanent solution - and source of money - than the temporary nature of Proposition 1B.

The vehicle license fee would drop for the first 11 years, so motorists would pay less each year as the value of their vehicle diminishes.

Transportation California estimates the vehicle fee increase would create about 18,000 new construction-related jobs.

Lieu said he would not like to see any of the money go toward California's controversial bullet train proposal that critics have assailed as a waste of money.

nick.green@dailybreeze.com

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