Looks can be deceiving. Almost two thousand years ago, as the gladiator entered the arena of the Roman Coliseum, it must have been quite a sight as 80,000 cheering Romans impatiently waited for the next bloody battle. The Emperor had promised bread and circuses. But the gladiator didn’t have much time to look around and marvel at the beautiful elliptical amphitheater – an amazing architectural achievement – with its gleaming arches and columns reaching into the sky. Then the gladiator heard a noise behind him. A door in the arena had opened and suddenly a fierce lion from Africa was charging right at him. The crowd roared. His fate would be decided within minutes.

Looks can also be deceiving in the State Capitol in Sacramento as one enters the perilous political arena. While the State Capitol, with its Greco-Roman arches, columns and Rotunda, is beautiful and popular with tourists and gaggles of school children, the stark reality of big government is that legislators choose winners and losers. Some will gain or lose their freedom. Some will have their pocketbooks enhanced, while others will have their pockets picked.

Most political battles in the State Capitol over proposed legislation are decided in committee rooms and behind closed doors in member offices. Room 112 in the State Capitol, with its red carpet, Romanesque molding and large painting of Yosemite falls, is where the Senate Governance and Finance Committee decides the fate of many bills. In Room 112, the City of Auburn’s fiscal fate would be determined in large part as legislators assigned to this committee would vote on SB 983 (Hernandez).

SB 983, as introduced on February 11, would have reassigned sales tax revenues collected from card lock fueling operations from the location of the card-lock operation’s headquarters to the locations of its fueling stations. SB 983 would have had a devastating impact on city finances – a reduction of 40% in the city’s sales tax revenue starting on January 1, 2015 – because the family-owned Flyers Energy Company has its headquarters at the Auburn Municipal Airport. If the bill was enacted, the city would be forced to layoff public safety officers and other city employees and reduce services to residents.

Auburn’s Interim City Manager Ramirez gathered a coalition to oppose the bill. We sent letters to legislators and made phone calls to them and their staffs. Right before the April 30th hearing on the bill, our coalition was gathering in front of Chops, a famous watering hole in front of the State Capitol. We got word from the lobbyist from the City of Lancaster, that the bill would be completely changed and would be voted on that morning. We scrambled to find out what the gutted and amended bill would look like. It was good news. As the committee hearing began, Chairwoman Lois Wolk told the bill’s author Senator Ed Hernandez that she would support passing the bill only if it was amended to protect cities that currently rely on the revenues from card-lock fueling companies.

As I testified before committee on the behalf of Auburn, I described the potential damaging impact of the bill on our town but that we could go neutral if it was amended to not suddenly cut our fuel tax revenue. On May 21, SB 983 was amended on to provide that agreements entered into after May 1, 2014 would distribute the money generated by card-lock fueling companies to the point of sale rather the headquarters of the company. The City of Auburn removed its opposition to the bill, as Auburn’s fuel tax money would be protected to at least 2035.

But from having worked in the State Capitol for over two decades, I know that bad legislative ideas can suddenly spring to life in the final hours of a legislative session. The city must monitor the language in SB 983 until the Legislature adjourns on August 31 in case it reverts back to its original version. We will be watching very closely.

Published in the Auburn Journal on June 11, 2014.