California's gas tax repeal measure makes fall ballot and could boost GOP candidates

Key Points
  • A gas tax repeal effort in California qualified for the November ballot and could help Republicans in the close midterm congressional elections in the state.
  • The fight over the repeal also could end up being one of the costliest statewide measures on the fall ballot.
  • Last year, California's Democratic-led legislature passed a 40 percent increase in the state's excise gas tax as well as increased vehicle fees.
  • The California Republican Party along with prominent House GOP members, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, provided financial support for the repeal effort.

A proposition to repeal California's gas tax could end up being one of the most costliest statewide measures on the November ballot and potentially push GOP and moderate voters to the polls for the midterm congressional elections.

"This flawed and dangerous measure pushed by Trump’s Washington allies jeopardizes the safety of millions of Californians by stopping local communities from fixing their crumbling roads and bridges," Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown tweeted Monday. "Just say no."

The California secretary of State's office announced Monday that the measure had been cleared for the Nov. 6 ballot after obtaining the required number of signatures. Backers of the repeal effort spent about $1.7 million to qualify it for the fall ballot.

The repeal effort received financial help from the California Republican Party and prominent House Republicans. Contributors include Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.

Besides helping Republicans in close congressional races in California, the repeal measure could aid GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox, a San Diego businessman running against Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Cox has been a backer of the gas tax repeal effort and donated money to the campaign.

Last year, California's Democratic-led legislature approved Senate Bill 1, raising the state excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon, or a 40 percent increase. As of Tuesday, California motorists were shelling out an average of $3.67 per gallon for gasoline, well above the national average of $2.85, according to AAA.

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SB 1 is designed to provide about $52.4 billion over the next decade, with the funds going to repair and maintain highways, local streets and bridges as well as for investments in mass transit. Part of the funding also came from boosting registration fees on vehicles by $25 to $175, with the increase depending on the value of the car.

Critics charge there's enough state revenue available without new taxes or fees to fix roads and fund other transportation needs. Also, some opponents of the gas tax contend the money raised could potentially be used for other things.

Polls show voters favor repeal

Recent polls show a majority of Californians favor repealing the increase in the state gas tax and vehicle fees. The repeal is supported by 51 percent of likely California voters, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released May 24.

A coalition has vowed to fight the repeal effort, including groups from construction, trade unions and transit as well as local jurisdictions. Cities and counties could lose major funding for transportation if the repeal is approved by voters in the fall.

"It’s fairly close in many respects in terms of the polling,” said Roger Dickinson, executive director of Transportation California, a group fighting the repeal effort. “Most people only have heard or seen one side. The state has a backlog already of $150 billion in road maintenance.”

Dickinson, a former state Assembly member, said that there will be a “vigorous and active campaign” to educate voters on the issues. "It’s going to be comprehensive statewide campaign.”

A worker repaves a road on Encino Drive in Oak View, California.
Visions of America | UIG | Getty Images

"This measure would jeopardize more than 5,000 transportation improvement projects currently underway or planned throughout the state — making our local roads less safe, more congested and more deteriorated," said Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Comparisons to 1978's Prop 13 tax revolt

Some see the repeal as reminiscent of California's Proposition 13, a voter-led California tax revolt in 1978 that reduced property taxes on homes and businesses. Nearly two-thirds of voters approved the landmark ballot measure.

"It's going to be the biggest taxpayer revolt that we've seen in California since Prop 13," said Carl DeMaio, chair of the Gas Tax Repeal Campaign and a former San Diego councilman. "I think it will send a national message."

DeMaio said he expects opposition groups fighting the tax repeal to outspend proponents of the repeal measure. "They're talking about $40 million or $50 million," he said. "On our side, we think that we'll end up with about a $10 million budget, and we're not too worried about that because the voters are well aware of the gas tax issue."

"I expect a lot of money to come into this," said John J. Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "On the one hand, Republicans support it because they are hoping it will boost GOP turnout. On other other hand, there are a lot of business and labor interests who adamantly oppose it and they'll put money into it. So that will run up the tab."

Repeal initiative could lift GOP turnout

Pitney adds that the repeal effort "probably will boost Republican turnout to some degree." Also, he said, It "could tip some close [congressional] races if the proponents of the repeal are very successful."

Republicans are hoping to hold onto several congressional seats in California that Democrats have targeted as a way to help take back the House. Under California's primary system, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the November runoff.

Some of the Republican House seats considered vulnerable in California are in congressional districts that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

Then again, Pitney believes the higher number of Republicans going to the polls in the fall may not be "nearly enough" to change the outcome for some statewide elective offices, such as governor. Regardless, GOP gubernatorial candidate Cox has won the endorsement of President Donald Trump.

Registration of Republicans in California has fallen from 36 percent in 1997 to about 25 percent as of January, according to figures from the state. Democratic registration as of January 2017 was nearly 45 percent of the state's total registered voters while "no party preference" was 25 percent.

But proponents of the repeal effort contend moderate Democrats and independents also are supporting the measure. They point out voters this month also recalled from office a state senator, Democrat Josh Newman of Fullerton, who was targeted for supporting the increased gas tax.

"Newman was easily defeated in a Democrat-leaning district," said DeMaio, who said he doesn't see it as a partisan issue. "Voters are angry with politicians who just seem so out of touch. The cost of living in California is skyrocketing and people are looking for relief."

Costs average driver $750 per year

An official analysis done by the state's Legislative Analyst's Office estimated California's transportation bill would cost the average driver $750 per year in taxes and fees. California has the second-highest gas taxes after Pennsylvania when combining state, local and federal gas taxes, according to GasBuddy.

"If this rollback is approved, we will still have the fifth highest in the nation," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a nonpartisan group supporting the tax repeal effort.

Coupal said the Republicans in the state had a counterproposal to Democrats' SB 1 that would have put $11 billion immediately into transportation and with no tax increases. "There's all kind of things we can do to deal with California transportation needs without raising taxes," he said.