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California’s gas tax hike cost a lawmaker his job. Critics say repeal is next

California’s gas tax hike cost a lawmaker his job. Critics say repeal is next
State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) was recalled from office by voters in Tuesday's election after he was targeted for supporting an increase in the state gas tax. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The decision by voters Tuesday to remove an Orange County state senator targeted for raising the state’s gas tax could be a harbinger for the fall campaign when critics of the tax hike push their repeal effort to the statewide ballot.

Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), who was midway through his four-year term, was recalled from office Tuesday by 59.5% of the voters in his district, which includes parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

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Republican leaders behind the recall measure said Wednesday that the ouster of Newman provides momentum to repeal the gas tax in a constitutional amendment proposed for the November ballot. And that, they predict, will turn out more conservative voters to the benefit of their candidates for Congress and the state Legislature.

“It bodes very well for us to pull off the repeal,” said Carl DeMaio, chairman of Reform California and a leader of the recall effort. “It shows that there is a taxpayer revolt brewing in California that is seeing through the millions of dollars of misleading ads from Sacramento special interests.”

Gov. Jerry Brown, a leading proponent of raising the gas tax to pay for road and bridge repairs, declined Wednesday to comment on how the recall might affect a repeal effort, but he lamented losing Newman from legislative service.

“Josh took courageous votes and got things done in Sacramento,” Brown said in a statement. “He chose to fix our crumbling roads and build for our future, rather than kick the can. We need more leaders like him.”

Newman declined an interview request. He thanked his supporters in a statement.

“None of this shakes my faith in California or in the fundamental capacity of politics to serve as a platform for doing good and for serving people,” Newman said. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to represent the people and cities of the 29th Senate District.”

Senate Bill 1, which raised state gas taxes and vehicle fees to pay for transportation projects, is supported by business, civic and labor leaders who said Wednesday that the recall does not mean the transportation funding law is doomed.

“What the recall proves is that this whole issue is partisan politicians’ desperate attempts to stay in power despite the cost to the public,” said Michael Quigley, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs.

Voters in the 29th Senate District elected Republican Ling Ling Chang to replace Newman, the first California state lawmaker recalled in 23 years. Newman could wait to step down until as late as July 13, when the state is scheduled to certify the results of the election. His loss means Democrats in the Senate will not have the two-thirds supermajority needed to raise taxes.

Newman was one of 81 legislators to vote in April 2017 to increase the state gas tax by 12 cents a gallon, boost the diesel fuel tax by 20 cents a gallon and increase vehicle fees. The new charges are expected to raise $5.4 billion annually for road and transit projects.

Democratic leaders, including Brown, helped raise more than $4 million to fight Newman’s recall, but Republicans, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, funded the repeal drive.

McCarthy hailed the recall Wednesday in an appearance on Fox News.

The congressman said that in November, “Democrats are going to have to defend raising the gasoline tax while Republicans say they want to repeal it.”

The repeal initiative needs 585,407 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot, and backers recently turned in petitions signed by 963,905 people. The verification process is still underway, but so far elections officials are finding 77% of the signatures they have checked are valid.

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John J. Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, said that Newman’s recall suggests the gas tax issue has “traction” but that the outcome of the repeal measure is not set in concrete.

“A strong campaign on the ‘No’ side could change opinions and defeat the ballot measure,” Pitney said. “But it will take a lot of work and a lot of money. And conservatives will be funding the repeal effort in hopes of boosting GOP turnout.”

Quigley, a member of the coalition supporting SB 1, said he is not worried. “We’re confident voters are going to reject this misleading scheme that will make our roads less safe, more congested and more expensive to fix in the future,” he said.

Newman’s ouster from office is not the only sign that the gas tax is a potent issue for Republicans.

The tax also appeared to help Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, who noted in every stump speech that he co-chairs the repeal drive. Voters on Tuesday sent Cox on to the November ballot against Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. On election night, Cox told supporters that he will continue to campaign against the gas tax.

“How many hardworking Californians are going to be forced to choose between buying groceries or filling up their tank on the way to work?” Cox said. “We’re going to repeal that gas tax in November.”

Assemblyman Travis Allen, a GOP backbencher from Huntington Beach, highlighted his opposition to the tax and placed fourth in the governor’s race Tuesday ahead of such high-profile Democrats as state Treasurer John Chiang.

Even before the election, there were signs that voters did not like the higher gas tax, especially at a time when gas prices have skyrocketed largely due to other factors.

Two weeks ago, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times statewide poll found that repeal of the higher taxes and fees was supported by 51% of registered voters in California.

“If it’s going to survive, and it’s supported by business and a lot of progressives, there is going to have to be a major campaign to educate people on what it means,” Bob Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said Wednesday. “And even that may not work, because there is a kind of tax fatigue in California at this point.”

Every Republican on the November ballot should run on a platform of repealing the gas tax, said David Gilliard, the Republican political strategist behind the repeal measure who also advises several GOP members of Congress, including Reps. Mimi Walters and Jeff Denham, who are among the top targets of Democrats.

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“The recall of Josh Newman should send shock waves through the ranks of politicians who supported the massive gas and car tax increases passed by the Legislature last year,” Gilliard said.

Meanwhile, DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman, said his group is considering possible recall campaigns against other Democratic senators who supported the gas tax, including Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge and Richard Roth of Riverside.

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