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Political Road Map: Here's how that gas tax increase could give California Republicans a lifeline in 2018

Sometime this summer, as temperatures begin to sizzle, California Republicans could do something that — if things worked out just right— could thaw out their long, cold winter of political isolation.

It would be bold, but not without precedent: A war waged against a tax increase. In this instance, the state’s impending price hike for a gallon of gas.

“It’s the price tag that’s in your face every day,” said Rob Stutzman, a longtime GOP political consultant who’s not backing the idea, but says it’s ripe for the taking. “It’s not hard to explain.”

Less than seven weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a sweeping $5.2-billion package of proposals to fix California’s roads and highways. To pay for it, the base excise tax on gas goes up by 12 cents a gallon in November. Diesel fuel taxes will rise by 20 cents a gallon.

There’s also a new annual vehicle fee the DMV will charge to help fund the transportation projects, based on a vehicle’s value and ranging from $25 to $175. Brown has made a frequent point of defending the necessity of the transportation plan, which won a supermajority vote in both legislative houses and earned the support of business and transportation groups.

Californians hate bad roads. But they may hate taxes even more. In a new statewide poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, 58% of voters surveyed said they oppose the tax-and-spend transportation plan.

“It’s not a bad issue to organize a campaign around,” Stutzman said.

In fact, it’s the centerpiece of a recall effort against state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), a freshman legislator who voted for the tax increase. The California Republican Party is helping pay for signature-gathering to force a special election. So why not go all the way with a full statewide vote on a gas tax repeal?

Last month, a GOP legislator filed a proposed initiative to do just that. Getting it on the ballot would probably cost around $3 million, a full-blown campaign to pass it would cost much more. And there’s danger for the GOP, whose biggest donors are some of the same business groups that supported the transportation plan.

But as Stutzman points out — and some Democratic strategists agree, though none would say so on the record — getting it on the ballot could provide a big boost for Republicans.

“Just qualifying it would make it a centerpiece of all the political conversation,” he said. “It allows them to go on offense.”

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It could force Democrats in battleground legislative races to defend the tax. The California Democratic Party might have to open up its sizable war chest. Perhaps even Brown, by then on the homestretch of his political career and facing questions about his legacy, would dip into his $15 million campaign bank account for the transportation plan he helped craft.

Even vulnerable GOP members of Congress might benefit, giving them something other than President Trump to talk about. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently suggested that the unpopular gas tax could fuel strong Republican turnout next year. If he wanted to, McCarthy alone could probably raise the money needed to qualify a gas tax repeal for the ballot.

In truth, this is mostly a good political parlor game right now in Sacramento and across the state. Things are quiet, and the 2018 initiative landscape looks bare — a striking contrast to 2016, one of the longest statewide ballots in recent history. It’s up to Republicans to decide whether it’s really a window of opportunity.

But the party has been hemorrhaging voters. It’s lost every statewide election since 2006. And Republicans now have only a fraction of the seats they used to hold in the Legislature. An old-fashioned tax fight, in a state where taxes have historically been hard to defend, could be just what the doctor ordered.

john.myers@latimes.com

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