Higher gas tax is a ripe tar­get for state GOP

Los Angeles Times - - ESSENTIAL POLITICS - JOHN MY­ERS john.my­ers@la­times.com

Some­time this sum­mer, as tem­per­a­tures be­gin to siz­zle, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­cans could do some­thing that — if things worked out just right — could thaw out their long, cold win­ter of po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion.

It would be bold, but not with­out prece­dent: a war waged against a tax in­crease. In this in­stance, the state’s im­pend­ing price hike for a gal­lon of gas.

“It’s the price tag that’s in your face every day,” said Rob Stutz­man, a long­time GOP po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant who’s not back­ing the idea, but says it’s ripe for the tak­ing. “It’s not hard to ex­plain.”

Less than seven weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a sweep­ing $5.2-bil­lion pack­age of pro­pos­als to fix Cal­i­for­nia’s roads and high­ways. To pay for it, the base ex­cise tax on gas goes up by 12 cents a gal­lon in Novem­ber. Diesel fuel taxes will rise by 20 cents a gal­lon.

There’s also a new an­nual ve­hi­cle fee the DMV will charge to help fund the trans­porta­tion projects, based on a ve­hi­cle’s value and rang­ing from $25 to $175. Brown has made a fre­quent point of de­fend­ing the ne­ces­sity of the trans­porta­tion plan, which won a su­per­ma­jor­ity vote in both leg­isla­tive houses and earned the sup­port of busi­ness and trans­porta­tion groups.

Cal­i­for­ni­ans hate bad roads. But they may hate taxes even more. In a new statewide poll by UC Berke­ley’s In­sti­tute of Gov­ern­men­tal Stud­ies, 58% of vot­ers sur­veyed said they op­pose the tax-and-spend trans­porta­tion plan.

In fact, it’s the cen­ter­piece of a re­call ef­fort against state Sen. Josh New­man (D-Fuller­ton), a fresh­man leg­is­la­tor who voted for the tax in­crease. The Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can Party is help­ing pay for sig­na­ture-gath­er­ing to force a spe­cial elec­tion. So why not go all the way with a full statewide vote on a gas tax re­peal?

Last month, a GOP leg­is­la­tor filed a pro­posed ini­tia­tive to do just that. Get­ting it on the bal­lot would prob­a­bly cost around $3 mil­lion; a full-blown cam­paign to pass it would cost much more. And there’s dan­ger for the GOP, whose big­gest donors are some of the same busi­ness groups that sup­ported the trans­porta­tion plan.

But as Stutz­man points out — and some Demo­cratic strate­gists agree, though none would say so on the record — get­ting it on the bal­lot could pro­vide a big boost for Repub­li­cans. “Just qual­i­fy­ing it would make it a cen­ter­piece of all the po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion,” he said. “It al­lows them to go on of­fense.”

It could force Democrats in bat­tle­ground leg­isla­tive races to de­fend the tax. The Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic Party might have to open up its siz­able war chest. Per­haps even Brown, by then on the home­stretch of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer and fac­ing ques­tions about his legacy, would dip into his $15-mil­lion cam­paign bank ac­count for the trans­porta­tion plan he helped craft.

Even vul­ner­a­ble GOP mem­bers of Congress might ben­e­fit, giv­ing them some­thing other than Pres­i­dent Trump to talk about. House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy re­cently sug­gested that the un­pop­u­lar gas tax could fuel strong Repub­li­can turnout next year. If he wanted to, McCarthy alone could prob­a­bly raise the money needed to qual­ify a gas tax re­peal for the bal­lot.

In truth, this is mostly a good po­lit­i­cal par­lor game right now in Sacramento and across the state. Things are quiet, and the 2018 ini­tia­tive land­scape looks bare — a strik­ing con­trast to 2016, one of the long­est statewide bal­lots in re­cent his­tory. It’s up to Repub­li­cans to de­cide whether it’s re­ally a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity.

The party has been hem­or­rhag­ing vot­ers. It’s lost every statewide elec­tion since 2006. And Repub­li­cans now have only a frac­tion of the seats they used to hold in the Leg­is­la­ture. An old-fash­ioned tax fight, in a state where taxes have his­tor­i­cally been hard to de­fend, could be just what the doc­tor or­dered.

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