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Opponents of California gas-tax increase get green light to launch petition drive for repeal initiative

Gas prices are displayed at a Chevron station in Sacramento two days before the state gas tax was increased by 12 cents a gallon. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Gas prices are displayed at a Chevron station in Sacramento two days before the state gas tax was increased by 12 cents a gallon. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Republican activists were given the green light Monday to launch a petition drive aimed at qualifying a measure for the November 2018 ballot that would repeal recently enacted gas taxes and vehicle fees meant for road repairs and mass transit improvement.

The proposed state constitutional amendment, which would also require future gas taxes to be approved by the voters, was given a title and summary Monday by the state attorney general’s office, allowing opponents of the fuel levies to begin a drive that needs to collect 587,407 signatures of registered voters.

Republicans hope to make the gas tax increases a hot-button issue in the 2018 election for the Democrat-controlled Legislature that approved the hikes.

The main part of the title says the ballot measure “eliminates recently enacted road repair and transportation funding by repealing revenues dedicated for those purposes.” Republicans said a similar title on a separate initiative hid the fact that tax increases were being repealed by calling them “revenues.”

The title issued Monday was denounced as misleading by campaign representative Carl DeMaio, a conservative radio talk show host and former San Diego City Council member.

"Politicians think that a deceptive title and summary will fool voters," DeMaio said. "We've got news for the Sacramento politicians: Californians are smarter than that."

Despite objections to the title and summary, the campaign will start signature collection “immediately” while reserving the right to go to court later to get a better title and summary for the actual ballot measure, DeMaio said.

Two committees set up to qualify a repeal measure have already raised $675,000, including $250,000 from Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, $100,000 from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and $50,000 from other Republican members of Congress.

The funding will pay for a $500,000 public awareness campaign on television, radio and print to persuade people during the next few weeks to sign petitions, as well as an email blast of petitions to nearly 300,000 voters who have already said they want to sign, DeMaio said.

“We’re not taking any chances. We’re getting our signatures quick,”  he said. “We’re getting them in during holiday season and were going full throttle on public awareness so people know the petition’s out there.”

Supporters of the gas-tax increase say they are prepared to spend up to $40 million to defeat any ballot measure because decades of neglect have left California with a crumbling, potholed road system and inadequate mass transit.

The campaign against repeal is being led by the Fix Our Roads coalition of business and civic groups, including the League of California Cities and the California Chamber of Commerce. Gov. Jerry Brown, who is termed out of office in 2018 and sits on $15 million in surplus campaign funds, has already begun to fight the repeal.

In April, Brown signed legislation that will provide $5.2 billion annually for the first 10 years and more in later years to attack a $130-billion backlog of needed road and bridge repairs.

The money will come from a 12-cent-per-gallon increase in the state excise tax on gasoline and a 20-cents-per-gallon boost to the diesel tax that took effect Nov. 1.

The repeal would also affect a new annual vehicle fee, starting Jan. 1, ranging from $25 for cars valued at under $5,000 to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more. Electric car owners who don’t pay gas taxes will be billed a $100 annual fee starting in 2020.

Meanwhile, a second initiative drive that has less funding and support ran into an obstacle when an appeals court overruled a lower court decision that said Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s title and summary were biased and failed to emphasize that the measure would repeal tax hikes.

Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen, the primary proponent of the second initiative, plans to appeal the latest ruling to the state Supreme Court, his attorney said.

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