A state gas tax increase of 12 cents per gallon kicks in Wednesday, and while the immediate impact will mean less money in motorists’ wallets, the long-term political fallout could roll into next year, when the higher levies are expected to be an issue in elections across California.
But the vitriol between Democrats who supported the new taxes and Republicans who opposed them kicked up months ago, well before the first newly taxed gallon will be pumped tomorrow.
The tax increase has triggered proposed ballot initiatives to repeal the hikes from members of the GOP who hope to capitalize on the issue in the 2018 elections. A recall campaign and attack ads have been launched against legislators who voted for the higher levies. And multiple court battles over the efforts to oppose the gas tax have begun.
Just last week, two lawmakers who voted for the April transportation package that included the gas tax increases came under fire in radio ads financed by the Western Growers Assn., which represents farmers who say they will have to pay more to get their crops to market.
The ads target Democratic assemblymen Joaquin Arambula of Fresno and Eduardo Garcia of Coachella — both of whom represent rural districts and are up for reelection in 2018. They point out that Californians already pay more than average in fuel taxes compared with other states.
“Voting to raise gas taxes on our families means that Eduardo Garcia isn’t thinking about us,” one ad says.
Garcia blasted the ads as “deceptive” and an effort to punish him for a vote to provide overtime for farmworkers.
He defended his vote on the gas tax.
“Our roads in California have not seen a substantial investment for 25 years,” he said.
The tax increases approved by the Democrat-dominated Legislature will help raise more than $5.2 billion annually to repair California’s crumbling roads and bridges, improve mass transit, expand bike lanes and reduce traffic congestion. The state has a backlog of $130 billion in repair and replacement projects for its transportation system.
The bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown will raise the state excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents, from 29.7 cents per gallon to 41.7 cents per gallon. The excise tax on diesel fuel will increase by 20 cents, from 16 cents per gallon to 36 cents per gallon, and the sales tax rate on diesel will increase from 9% to 13%.
The law’s other new expense for drivers doesn’t kick in for another two months: an annual vehicle fee ranging from $25 for cars valued at under $5,000, to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more. In lieu of gas taxes, electric car owners will pay a $100 annual fee starting in 2020.
Californians can expect to pay about $10 per month with the increased taxes and vehicle fees, Brown said, citing an analysis by the state Department of Transportation.
“These investments will create good-paying jobs, improve traffic safety and expand public transit access in communities across the state — without burdening our future generations with debt,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).
The repeal of the gas tax is supported by Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. He thinks voters will still be angry about the tax hikes when they go to the polls in 2018.
“I think it’s going to be consistently on the taxpayers’ minds every time they fill up with gas,” Coupal said.
Most Republican lawmakers opposed the tax increases, saying the state should instead divert billions of dollars from wasteful spending and a bullet train project they believe is not cost-effective and direct it toward transportation.
Many Republicans have already latched onto the tax increases as a hot-button issue for the 2018 elections.
Activists led by former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio hope to begin circulating petitions for a constitutional amendment for the November 2018 ballot that would repeal the tax legislation and require future gas tax increases to be put before voters.
The measure was recently backed by John Cox, a businessman and Republican candidate for governor who pledged to help bankroll the initiative. Another Republican candidate for governor, Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach, has proposed his own 2018 initiative to repeal the gas tax.
The DeMaio-Cox measure has been endorsed by 11 of the 14 Republican members of Congress from California, most of whom are being advised by political strategists to take advantage of the public’s anger over tax increases as they seek reelection next year.
In addition, Republicans are seeking a recall vote in early 2018 against Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton, citing his vote in favor of the gas tax. If the courts don’t intervene, the recall measure could be on the ballot in early 2018. Newman won election last year by a slim margin and his removal in a recall could deprive the Democrats of a supermajority in the Senate.
Brown has hosted a political fundraiser for Newman and last month did a rare tour of the legislative district with the beleaguered senator to show his support. The governor’s aides have talked about launching a significant campaign to defeat any measure that would repeal the gas tax.
Meanwhile, a coalition of civic and business leaders including the California Chamber of Commerce called “Fix Our Roads” has talked about spending up to $40 million to defend the gas tax against any initiative next year.
The coalition held public events last week in Sacramento, Fresno and Bakersfield, where mayors and transportation officials touted state efforts that have expedited work on projects.
There are other factors that could impact how big an issue the tax increase becomes in the election. Gas prices fluctuate frequently in California for reasons that have nothing to do with taxes, such as when refineries are shut for repairs.
Nov. 1 is also when refineries are allowed to stop producing more expensive summer fuel blends — aimed at reducing smog — for much of the state, said Kara Siepmann, spokeswoman for the Western States Petroleum Assn.
Typically, the difference in cost between summer and winter fuel blends is between 6 and 12 cents, according to Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. That could partly offset the increase in taxes, he said.
Others note Republican voter registration has dropped to 25.9% in California.
“The state is more liberal and receptive to arguments for government spending,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. “The Republican Party is much weaker and less capable of getting its message to the voters.”
Pitney also noted reports that President Trump is considering an increase in the federal gas tax.
“If he tries to move such an idea, he will eviscerate any efforts by California Republicans to fight the state gas tax increase,” Pitney said.