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

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By JohnWool­folk jwool­folk@ba­yare­anews­group.com

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.”

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