California’s top politicians and interest groups celebrated a few months ago when the Legislature passed a package of taxes and fees to pay for long-neglected improvements to the state’s transportation systems.
The heart of the $5 billion-plus per year revenue package is a 12-cent-a-gallon hike in gasoline taxes that took effect this month, just as other factors, including a spike in global oil prices, hit pump prices that were already among the nation’s highest.
Therefore, when they filled up their tanks this month, California motorists typically paid 40 to 50 cents per gallon more than they had been paying a month earlier.
As the tax hike went into effect, the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences were conducting one of their periodic public opinion polls.
The results were potentially devastating for the political, business and labor union groups that had pushed successfully for the transportation package after decades of delay. Most of California’s registered voters would opt to eliminate the gas taxes and fees, the polling found.
It wasn’t overwhelming – 54.2 percent preferring to repeal the package and 45.8 per cent favoring retention. But it was clearly worrisome to the sponsors because there are two repeal ballot measures in the preliminary processes of qualifying for the 2018 ballot.
“Put to a popular vote, the gas tax for infrastructure is in trouble,” Robert Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, told the Times. “I certainly would not want to start out at 47 percent support if I was in favor of this and there was a ballot measure.”
The partisan divide on the issue is quite evident in the USC/Times poll, with Democrats favoring retention and Republicans opting for repeal.
The state Republican Party clearly hopes that the gas tax issue will motivate its voters, helping the GOP stave off threats to several congressional seats, and perhaps demonstrate that it still has some relevance. It’s also backing a recall drive against one Democratic state senator who voted for the taxes and if successful, the recall would erase Democrats’ two-thirds supermajority in the Senate.
That said, pro-tax forces, which includes the state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, probably will spend much more money to defend the package than repeal groups can muster.
There are also many more Democratic voters than Republicans in California, so if one or both of the repeal measures make the ballot, voter turnout could be a key factor in the outcome.
Tapping transportation users for more money to fix transportation systems makes perfect sense. The taxes and fees may pinch motorists, and hit the poor particularly hard, but the opponents haven’t identified any equivalent alternative if they are repealed.
If repeal succeeds, the state’s highways, streets and transit systems will continue to deteriorate and Gov. Jerry Brown’s successor and legislators will have to deal with it.
One option might be to divert more revenues from the sale of carbon emission credits under the state’s cap-and-trade program to transportation, and less, or perhaps none, to Brown’s pet high-speed rail project.
It wouldn’t completely backfill the repealed gas taxes, but in terms of enhanced mobility, it would not be a bad use of cap-and-trade revenues, many of which are being indirectly paid by motorists.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/articles/author/dan-walters. Dan Walters: email@example.com