Opinion: Battle Intensifies Over California’s Gas Tax for Crumbling Roads

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Carl DeMaio with boxes of signed petitions outside the San Diego County Registrar of Voters. Image from DeMaio’s Twitter feed

By Dan Walters | CALmatters Commentary

A measure to repeal California’s hefty new increases in taxes and fees on motorists, more than $5 billion a year, is awaiting signature verification for a place on November’s ballot.

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However, it’s already an issue in some June 5 election contests—especially in a recall effort aimed at state Sen. Josh Newman. The Fullerton Democrat took a seat away from Republicans two years ago and now is being accused of betraying constituents by voting for the tax and fee legislation, Senate Bill 1, last year.

Polls indicate that the new levies, including a 12-cent-per-gallon hike in gas taxes, are not popular with most voters. The state Republican Party is sponsoring the repeal measure, as well as backing the Newman recall effort, to leverage that disdain.

GOP leaders also hope the issue will spur higher turnout of anti-tax Republican voters, both in June and in November, and help the party retain several congressional seats that Democrats want to flip.

Thus, SB 1 is not only an important issue unto itself—the money would go for a wide variety of transportation improvement projects—but is intertwined with larger conflicts, including the nationwide jousting over control of Congress.

Dan Walters

As the stakes rise, the campaign to counter the GOP-backed repeal measure is also shifting into high gear, and Gov. Jerry Brown is leading the charge.

Brown’s Department of Transportation and the state Transportation Commission are moving at warp speed to pump out as many new projects as possible, and those are being heavily publicized by state and local officials, including Brown.

Earlier this month, for instance, Brown and Southern California officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, staged an event at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to puff $1.2 billion for “fixing California’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.”

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Last week, Brown was touting the relatively tiny “Rice Avenue Grade Separation Overpass” in Oxnard, a week after the Transportation Commission allocated $68.6 million for the project.

Brown et al. aim to instill in the motorists’ and voters’ collective consciousness the connection between the new taxes and fees they are reluctantly paying and visible improvements in the state’s transportation facilities.

Last Thursday, Brown delivered his final address to the Host Breakfast, an annual gathering of the state’s top business leaders in Sacramento, and devoted much of it to the issue.

“The roads are crumbling…and you have to fix them and spend money,” Brown told them, adding, “I know it’s not easy but it’s a test (of will).”

Brown spoke just hours after the Los Angeles Times published a new poll that found 51 percent of registered voters oppose the new taxes and fees, while just 38 percent support them.

If the repeal effort qualifies for the ballot, “it will be, I suspect, very hard to sustain” the tax package, said Robert Shrum, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “It’s almost dead.”

Not quite. It is unpopular, to be certain—and the poll found the highest opposition in suburban and rural regions. But a 51 percent sentiment for repeal it is not overwhelming, and there’s little doubt that supporters of SB 1, including business groups, unions and politicians, will spend heavily to defend it.

Brown himself is sitting on a multimillion-dollar cache of unspent campaign funds that he could devote to shoring up this element of his legacy.


CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more articles by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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