Is Prop. 6 running out of gas for GOP?
Recent polls suggest Republicans’ plan to rally its voters around overturning gas tax is falling flat
For California’s beleaguered GOP, next week’s election was supposed to be the gas tax revolt that roused Republicans.
To seize on voters’ anger, they dug out the playbook from 15 years ago, when a Republican action-movie star rode a vow to repeal an unpopular vehicle license fee hike straight into the governor’s office.
This year, California Republicans hoped Proposition 6, an initiative to repeal a gas tax hike, would deliver a similar narrative, boosting GOP voter turnout and chances for holding congressional seats and at least giving Democrat Gavin Newsoma run for his money in the governor’ s race.
But recent polls suggest the Grand Old Party’s grand plan is falling flat.
A Stanford poll Thursday showed 47 percent of voters oppose Prop. 6 and only 34 percent favor it. Public Policy Institute of California polls last week and last month also showed Prop. 6 lagging. And that is raising questions about GOP plans for competing in a statewhere voters’ appetites have grown for new taxes.
“This was supposed to show the limits of liberalism in California and put the fear of God or the fear of Prop. 13 into the hearts of future legislators hoping … to raise taxes,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego.
Proposition 13 was California’s famous 1978 property tax revolt against levies that were growing by double digits with soaring home values. Its passage made Democrats such as Gov. Jerry Brown, who also was governor back then, wary of the potential for tax blowback.
Initially, the Legislature’s gas tax hike last year, which also raised vehicle fees and taxes on die--
sel, seemed a potential disaster for California’s ruling Democrats. It fueled the successful June recall of state Sen. Josh Newman, an Orange County Democrat who voted for it and was replaced by a Republican who ran against the tax, costing Democrats their two-thirds Senate supermajority.
In launching the Prop. 6 campaign last year, Carl DeMaio, a consultant and former San Diego city councilman, said “2018 will be remembered as the year we had another taxpayer revolt in California — where the outrageous car and gas taxes were reversed by voters and the politicians that enacted those tax hikes are punished at the ballot box.” If approved, Prop. 6 also would amend the state constitution to require voter approval of future fuel taxes and vehicle fees.
But opponents have outraised Prop. 6 supporters nearly 9 to 1. And the latest polls on Prop. 6 call DeMaio’s early confidence into question.
Asked about Thursday’s Stanford poll, DeMaio blamed the “false and misleading ballot title” that Attorney General Xavier Becerra gave Proposition 6. The title says Prop. 6 “Elim- inates Recently Enacted Road Repair and Transportation Funding” but doesn’t say it repeals a gasoline tax.
DeMaio said many polls that show Prop. 6 losing use the ballot language when asking respondents’ opinions. By contrast, he said, a Survey USA online poll earlier this month that said Prop. 6 would “repeal gasoline and diesel taxes and vehicle fees” showed 58 percent in favor and 29 percent opposed.
“If we lose it’s because the voters were duped,” DeMaio said. “The voters were lied to on the ballot title. Do you think voters are going to sit for that?”
Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who was a speechwriter for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, said that Prop. 6 faces challenges that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t when he was swept into office in the 2003 recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
The vehicle license fee was a noticeably large in- crease on voters’ car registration, while today’s 12- cents- a- gallon tax on gasoline is barely noticed in a single fill-up at the pump, Whalen said. And the gas tax is tied to something many voters want — fixes for California’s crumbling roads and jobs for workers in politically potent unions.
“The initiative fight has two major design flaws — it’s going up against a popular concept of road improvements, and also punching at a much lower rate than its opponents,” Whalen said. “It’s picking a very difficult fight to win.”
Political experts note that today’s Californians have shown themselves to be more open to taxes than in the past. Brown won voter approval in 2012 for Proposition 30, a multibillion- dollar temporary tax on sales and high- earners, and in 2016 for Proposition 55, which extended the high- earner taxes.
“Forty years ago, a more conservative electorate supported Proposition 13,” said Claremont McKenna Col- lege politics professor John J. Pitney Jr. “That measure convinced Republicans that tax cuts were their Wonka ticket. But the electorate has moved to the left, and 1970s-style tax-cutting does not sell any better than leisure suits.”
Jack Citrin, a political science professor at UC Berkeley, said, “Anti- tax sentiment exists but it is muted by economic good times and the marketing and political clout of the pro-tax coalition,” which has bombarded voters with ads calling Prop. 6 “dangerous” to road safety.
He and others say California’s Republicans, who this year slipped to thirdparty status in the state behind independent voters claiming no political party, face challenges beyond inspiring voters to support a tax repeal.
“Ideological and demographic trends are against them,” Citrin said. “A scandal, a charismatic candidate a la Arnold, and a salient issue can give them occasional victories statewide.”
It’s hard to say before the election whether Prop. 6 ends up helping Republicans in other races. Businessman John Cox has consistently polled behind Newsom in the governor’s race. And California’s contested congressional races are too close to call. The California Republican Party did not respond to questions Thursday.
But Kousser said Prop. 6 in many ways was an ideal target to stoke the GOP base and pull in voters who may be growing weary of California’s high taxes and cost of living.
“This is one of the hardest taxes to defend in an election — it’s a broadbased tax, it’s regressive,” Kousser said. “This is not the millionaires’ tax. It hits us whenever we pull into the gas station in a very transparent way. And if we can’t have a revolt against that tax, then theremay not be a limit to liberalism in California.”