After less than two years in office, state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) was ousted in a recall election Tuesday for his vote to increase the gas tax to repair the state’s woefully maintained roads and expand its inadequate transit systems.
Political opportunism won over responsible governance.
Republicans launched the recall campaign after Newman supported the gas tax increase in Senate Bill 1. But Newman’s vote was a pretext. In fact, using gas taxes to pay for infrastructure and transportation projects is something Republicans have historically supported. But here they saw an opportunity to win back a seat that Newman narrowly won in 2016 and that was had been held by the GOP.
The campaign worked. Newman is out and Republican former Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, who lost the election in 2016, is in. The GOP got the do-over it wanted in a lower-turnout primary election.
The real concern is how this kind of cynical political gamesmanship will play in November.
Republican organizers expect to qualify an initiative for the ballot to repeal the gas tax and the vehicle fees passed in SB 1. While some of the enthusiasm for repeal comes from anti-tax activists, the referendum is being driven and bankrolled by GOP leaders, like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and gubernatorial candidate John Cox, who are betting the gas tax measure will help draw more Republicans to the polls.
In theory, that could help Cox’s showing against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the runoff — but good luck with that in solidly blue California. More likely, boosting the turnout of Republican and tax-wary voters could help protect GOP congressional seats in districts that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and thereby help Republicans hold their majority in the House.
This is a particularly craven plan because in a quest to win races, GOP leaders want to abandon what was once a thoroughly Republican idea — that drivers should help pay for road repairs and transportation infrastructure through gas taxes.
President Eisenhower signed the bill creating the Highway Trust Fund, which dedicated gas taxes and other vehicle taxes to transportation. President Reagan agreed to hike the federal gas tax, as did President George H.W. Bush. They didn’t raise fuel taxes because it was popular or easy; they did it because it was the right decision to invest in American infrastructure. State Republicans have supported gas taxes in Sacramento as well over the years.
Even President Trump has said he’ll consider hiking the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1993, to help fund transportation investments. In fact, Trump’s ballyhooed infrastructure plan would prioritize projects in “self-help” states and counties — that is, regions that have increased state or local taxes to pay for transportation.
So even as the Trump administration is encouraging states to raise their gas taxes to fund infrastructure, Republican leaders are trying to eliminate California’s fuel tax increase, and make the state less competitive for federal transportation dollars.