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Campaign to repeal gas tax short of cash as California Republican leaders focus funds on other contests

Campaign to repeal gas tax short of cash as California Republican leaders focus funds on other contests
Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, center, blasts the gas tax increase during a news conference in June with Carl DeMaio, left, chairman of Reform California, and Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Top Republicans in California appear to be shifting resources away from an issue they hoped would lure voters to the polls in November: repealing the gas tax.

After contributing $1.7 million to put a repeal initiative on the November ballot, Republican congressional leaders and GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox are now conspicuously absent from the list of donors spending money to help convince Californians to pass the measure.

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Construction firms, organized labor and Democrats have raised more than $30 million to defeat Proposition 6, while the main campaign committee in favor of the measure had just $83,291 in the bank as of Sept. 22, according to campaign finance statements made public Thursday.

The opposition campaign includes the California Chamber of Commerce, the League of California Cities and dozens of deep-pocketed construction firms and labor unions that would benefit from the tax’s billions targeted to road and bridge repair projects.

By qualifying Proposition 6, Republican leaders “hoped that voters would oppose [the gas tax] and, while they were at it, vote for Republicans [in congressional and legislative races] as well,” said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State. “But once they saw the powerful coalition opposed to [Proposition] 6, they figured it was better to put their resources elsewhere.”

Republicans including Cox are advocating for repeal as part of their own campaigns. Cox is chairman of the Proposition 6 committee, having provided $250,000 last year to launch the petition drive to qualify the ballot measure.

Cox is highlighting his opposition to the increased gas tax and vehicle fees in his campaign appearances and ads.

“Our gas taxes make our gas prices among the highest in the country,” Cox said in a television ad that began running last month. A newer Cox ad blames Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom for “sky-high gas prices.”

Wayne Johnson, a senior strategist for the Cox campaign, said the candidate will continue to press the case for repeal.

“The special interests are pouring tens of millions into the effort to stop Proposition 6,” Johnson said. “We will not, nor do we need to match them in spending, for while they have millions of dollars, we have millions of voters who have simply had enough of the Sacramento politicians.”

The California Republican Party contributed $300,000 to the main Proposition 6 campaign committee while it was collecting signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. It has only provided $504 to the committee for email blasts since its qualification on June 25.

“The California Republican congressional delegation asked if we could provide support to the qualification effort,” state party spokesman Matt Fleming said. “We support Yes on 6, the repeal of the gas tax, but our discretionary resources are being focused on electing Republicans.”

Proposition 6 would repeal a law approved by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown that raised the state gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and boosted the diesel fuel tax by 20 cents per gallon. The measure also created a new, annual vehicle fee ranging from $25 for cars valued at less than $5,000, to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more.

Brown and Democrats said the more than $5 billion that would be raised annually is needed to tackle a large backlog of road and bridge repair projects, and to improve mass transit.

Republicans have argued that the tax is unnecessary and that previous gas taxes and vehicle fees were sufficient to make needed improvements to the transportation system.

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House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) gave $300,000 to the campaign during the qualification period, but he has not written a check to the committee since the measure made the ballot.

He declined to answer why he has not continued to contribute to the campaign, but he said he thinks voters will approve the measure.

“The gas tax hike remains immensely unpopular throughout the state and across party lines,” McCarthy said in a statement. “I support Proposition 6 and believe that this tax hike on hardworking Californians should be repealed.”

Other Republicans who donated to the campaign to qualify Proposition 6 but have not given since then include Reps. Ken Calvert of Corona, Devin Nunes of Tulare, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

Since the initiative made the ballot, the biggest Republican office-holder donations have been $10,000 from Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Beach) and $1,500 from state Senate Republican leader Patricia Bates of Laguna Niguel.

The lack of funding from Republican leaders is a sign that they are worried about having enough money for tight legislative and congressional races, said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

“They have only so much money in the till,” Pitney said. “They realize that many of their incumbents could lose their seats and that the party is in serious danger of losing the majority. They have to put resources directly into those critical races. They don’t have the luxury of financing a ballot measure in hopes that it might have the indirect effect of boosting GOP turnout in a Democratic state.”

Opponents of Proposition 6 have contrasted their committee’s level of support with the other side.

“We have 450 organizations opposing Prop. 6,” said Carolyn Coleman, executive director of the League of California Cities. “On the other hand, the proponents are playing politics with public safety — it’s no wonder they aren’t getting any traction.”

A poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 52% of likely voters oppose Proposition 6.

Without big checks from elected Republicans going to the Yes on Prop. 6, Repeal the Gas Tax committee, a second campaign committee, headed by former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, has moved to the forefront of the effort to pass Proposition 6.

That committee, called Reform California, Yes on 6, did not receive any of the congressional money before the measure qualified. It reported Thursday that it raised $636,526 between July 1 and Sept. 22, mostly in small contributions. It ended the period with $1.34 million in the bank for the last five weeks of the campaign.

DeMaio’s committee announced Friday that it has spent $1.2 million on television ads urging voters to repeal the gas tax and countering a larger television ad campaign by opponents.

“This is truly a David-versus-Goliath fight, showing how grassroots volunteers can overcome millions in special interest corporate cash,” DeMaio said.

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He said the $30 million raised by opponents is not a surprise, “because the only chance they have to defeat the Prop. 6 Gas Tax Repeal is to lie to voters with scary, deceptive ads to con them into voting ‘no’ to keep the costly gas tax in place.”

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