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California Gas Tax Repeal Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot

The initiative is much more than whether to repeal taxes and fees enacted by the passage of the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017 which brings in over $5 billion a year. The measure is a means to increase GOP turnout to retain House seats.
June 27, 2018, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The California Voter Approval for Gas and Vehicle Taxes Initiative, also referred to as the Gas Tax Repeal Initiative, has qualified to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot as an initiated constitutional amendment after the Secretary of State's office validated more than the 585,407 signatures of registered voters required, according to a random sample count, reports Patrick McGreevy for the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

Should voters approve the initiative, as recent polling suggests, the state will lose over $5 billion annually in new taxes and fees included in the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017, aka Senate Bill 1. The legislature passed the bill in April 2017 without a vote to spare to meet the two-thirds supermajority, a requirement of Proposition 13, better known for reducing property taxes.

Proposition 13 analogy

Speaking of the landmark Prop. 13, passed by 65 percent of voters in 1978, Scott Shaefer of KQED News asks, "Is the Gas Tax Repeal Measure the New Proposition 13?"

So how do the politics of the gas tax repeal compare with those around Proposition 13? We know that anger over the tax hike was enough to get freshman Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) recalled by his constituents for the vote he cast in favor of it. But will the issue help put Republicans over the finish line come November?

The California Republic Party is betting on it, which explains why they, and "national Republican leaders including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, and GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox, spent $1.7 million to put the initiative on the ballot, and are expected to spend millions more to make sure voters repeal the tax and fees, a campaign they hope will turn out a conservative tide for congressional races," adds McGreevy.

The Prop. 13 analogy is timely for another reason: Californians will be voting on the gas tax repeal initiative 40 years after the proposition's passage, and the controversial measure remains exceedingly popular according to a new Public Policy Institute of California survey (posted here June 20):

 "A majority of Californians (57%) and likely voters (65%) feel that Proposition 13 turned out to be mostly a good thing for the state," according to the fact sheet.

Just as Prop. 13 changed many aspects of taxation, such as the two-thirds requirement for local and state legislative tax increases, the gas tax repeal is also a state constitutional amendment that will forever prohibit the legislature from increasing the gas tax directly, requiring the voters make that choice, as was done with Proposition 111 in June 1990.

Campaign to retain gas tax

"The gas tax is supported by the Coalition to Protect Local Transportation Improvements, which reported $5.1 million in campaign donations as of May 19," adds McGreevy. The coalition backed Proposition 69, a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment on the June ballot, which required that two of the SB 1 taxes be spent on transportation. The legislative initiative won, but is not an indication of how voters will decide on the repeal initiative.

Vehicle license fee analogy

A more recent election analogy than Prop. 13 was the successful 2003 recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis because of the prominent role played by his tripling of the annual cost of the vehicle license fee (VLF), aka "car tax", that led to the election of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promptly repealed the increase. 

While there are many differences between the 2003 VLF increase and the 2017 gas tax increase, there is at least one important similarity: their effects on the governors' legacies.

McGreevy writes that the gas tax repeal initiative "saddles Gov. Jerry Brown with a final challenge to preserve a key part of his legacy before leaving office."

“What he is fighting for is his legacy, and so I think he would have every reason in the world to put a lot of emphasis on keeping the gas tax in place,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist and publisher of California Target Book, which tracks political contests in the state.

“I will do everything in my power to defeat any repeal effort,” Brown said in a statement shortly after the Secretary of State’s Office announced the effort had qualified for the ballot, reports Erin Baldassari for The Mercury News. “You can count on that.”

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Published on Monday, June 25, 2018 in Los Angeles Times
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