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California drivers are paying more. Here's why that might get overturned in 2018

California drivers are paying more. Here's why that might get overturned in 2018
A motorist prepares to gas up her vehicle in San Rafael, Calif., in 2015. The state's gas tax increases are expected to remain controversial throughout 2018. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

A political dispute over how to pay for the repair of California’s pothole-plagued roads and crumbling bridges is spilling over into 2018, with new vehicle fees taking effect, followed by court dates and ballot measures.

The increase in gas taxes and vehicle fees to raise more than $5.2 billion annually for road and bridge repairs and improvements to mass transit was approved in April by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.

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Here are four things to watch for in 2018.

Paying at least $25 more starting in January

The 12-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax increase (and more for diesel) took effect in November. The new $25-per-vehicle highway user fee will begin showing up when motorists get auto registration renewal notices in 2018.

That includes about 2.5 million drivers who are scheduled to renew their registration in January.

Customers wait in line at a DMV office in Lincoln Park in Los Angeles.
Customers wait in line at a DMV office in Lincoln Park in Los Angeles. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The new annual fees will range from $25 for cars valued at under $5,000 to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more.

State officials estimate that 86% of vehicle owners will pay $25 or $50.

Senator targeted

Republicans have launched a campaign to recall freshman state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) because he voted for the gas tax and vehicle fee increases. The aim when the recall began was to deprive Democrats of their supermajority.

The GOP has made the gas tax hike a centerpiece of its argument that the Democrats have overreached in Sacramento.

State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton)
State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The secretary of state announced in October that a group seeking to unseat Newman turned in more than the 63,593 petition signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot, but the Legislature adopted a new law that delays the process. It requires, among other things, a financial analysis of the election first.

The analysis, completed Dec. 11, estimated a special election on the recall of Newman would cost $2.67 million. Should the question land on the regular June primary ballot, which will also feature races for governor and congressional seats and draw more voters, it would only cost taxpayers $931,000, the analysis found.

Brown and the Senate have until Jan. 10 to consider the financial report. The governor is expected to use the costs to opt for the recall election to be consolidated with the June 5 primary election.

Recall organizer Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego City Council member, called the delaying tactics “unconstitutional,” adding, “Gov. Jerry Brown and Sacramento politicians are sending a message to politicians who engage in misconduct that they need not leave office in a hurry because the governor and their fellow politicians will protect them for as long as possible.”

Derek Humphrey, a Newman campaign spokesman, said the recall is “a waste of tax dollars,” and “another example of the partisan politics as usual that people are tired of.”

Repeal effort

Two groups of Republicans are hoping to qualify initiatives for the Nov. 6 general election ballot that would repeal the gas tax and vehicle fee increases.

DeMaio is leading an effort to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would repeal the tax and fee hikes, and prevent future increases without a statewide vote of approval.

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The measure is backed by most Republican members of Congress from California, as well as Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox.

Assemblyman Travis Allen is among the organizers of a gas tax repeal effort
Assemblyman Travis Allen is among the organizers of a gas tax repeal effort (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Supporters of the initiative have begun circulating petitions and need to collect signatures of at least 580,000 registered voters to qualify the ballot measure.

Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) another candidate for governor, has also proposed a repeal initiative, but circulation of the petition for his proposal has been delayed by a court fight.

Court battles

In that dispute, Allen challenged the fairness of having the state attorney general, a partisan official, draft the crucial title and summary for petitions on initiatives that threaten Democratic policies.

Allen has asked the California Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision that approved what he feels is a misleading title and summary for his gas tax repeal initiative.

The title and summary were drafted by California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, a Democrat.

A Superior Court judge ruled in September that Becerra’s title for the initiative was misleading. But a state appeals court upheld Becerra’s title and summary as accurate.

In filing an appeal with the state Supreme Court, Allen accused the attorney general of “deliberately lying to California voters.” He said he was confident the top court “will right this injustice and will give the voters of California a fair and honest opportunity to repeal the gas tax.”

But the Supreme Court opted against taking up the matter.

A second lawsuit spawned by the gas tax increase is challenging the Legislature’s new law that delayed the Newman recall election by requiring a financial analysis. That case is expected to be heard in 2018 in state Superior Court.

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