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Republicans are mad about the California gas tax, and they're taking it out on this freshman lawmaker

It’s fitting in this pugnacious, polarized political climate that there are predators pouncing to recall a legislator for simply casting one vote.

He’s being targeted essentially for doing his job.

His job, that is, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers when they created a republican form of democracy. Not a direct democracy — not all the time, at least — but a republic where voters elect representatives to make government decisions for them.

State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) was exercising his delegated constitutional power when he voted for — horrors — a gas tax increase to pay for fixing California’s sorry roads.

That unleashed the predators who immediately launched an effort to recall Newman, despite his having served only four months of a four-year term.

Look, a recall is fair game when the target smells of corruption — maybe even if he has double-crossed his party. Republicans recalled two GOP turncoats in 1995 after they sold out to Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco to keep him in power.

No one is accusing Newman of being the slightest bit corrupt. And he’s clearly not a party traitor.

But that’s politics. It’s a rough game. Why anyone ever volunteers to enter that arena, I’ve never quite fathomed. Fortunately, lots of people do.

But bullying, frivolous recall attempts are unfortunate. In 2008, the Democratic Senate leader, Don Perata of Oakland, tried to recall then-Republican Sen. Jeff Denham of Merced. Denham’s sin? He cast one vote against the state budget.

I wrote that “Hiram Johnson would turn over in his coffin.” Johnson was the reform governor who a century earlier had given Californians the initiative, referendum and recall as handy tools of direct democracy. They’ve been way overused.

Voters in Denham’s district overwhelmingly rejected the recall attempt. And it propelled him into Congress.

A brief refresher course on the gas tax: The Legislature hadn’t raised it since 1989. Republican Gov. George Deukmejian was the sponsor then. This new tax will merely return levies to basically where they were a quarter-century ago, adjusted for inflation.

The gas tax was hiked 12 cents per gallon and diesel by 20 cents starting Nov. 1. There’ll be a new annual fee on vehicles based on their worth, ranging from $25 to $175.

That will raise $5.2 billion annually. It will be spent this way: 65% for fixing roads, 20% for transit and a portion for truck access around ports. Also, some for bicycle and pedestrian lanes. There’ll be a constitutional amendment to guarantee it’ll all be spent on transportation.

Updates from Sacramento »

No, you can’t take the bullet train money and switch it over to anything else.

Newman’s political problem is that, as longtime political analyst Tony Quinn notes: “It’s one thing for someone from San Francisco or Los Angeles to vote for a gas tax when their districts have lots of subsidized public transportation.

“It’s another for someone whose voters must travel huge miles to work. Newman’s is a district with lots of commuters who are going to feel the tax hike. It really hits the suburbs heavily.”

Newman’s answer: “Every Californian who drives a car can see that the roads are in real need of repair. There simply is not sufficient money in the General Fund budget. You can’t do it without additional revenue. You either raise taxes or borrow the money.

“Gov. Schwarzenegger borrowed money [nearly $20 billion] and it didn’t work out too well. Pay-as-you-go systems make sense to me. It’s no different than what Govs. Reagan and Deukmejian did.

“But I guess politics have changed since then. It’s a different world.”

Newman’s wasn’t the key vote in reaching the required two-thirds Senate majority. That came from a moderate Republican, Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres in the northern San Joaquin Valley.

In return, Cannella received some juicy pork for his district: $400 million to extend a Bay Area commuter rail line into Merced. A great deal.

Why didn’t Newman hold out for some pork? “I’m not wired that way,” he told me. “Sometimes you just have to make difficult votes.”

Better get rewired.

Newman had barely cast his vote when conservative talk radio host Carl DeMaio of San Diego began demanding a recall. In Los Angeles, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, the conservative KFI radio hosts, chimed in. They were joined by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. Then the California Republican Party launched its effort.

They need to collect 63,592 voter signatures. The party’s paying collectors $3 per signature. Democrats are shadowing the collectors trying to talk voters out of signing.

The goal is to collect enough signatures by Labor Day so Gov. Jerry Brown can’t delay the recall until the June 2018 primary. They want a single, special recall election sometime this fall with a small voter turnout, which invariably helps Republicans. The cost to taxpayers for the special election: around $2.5 million.

Newman is politically vulnerable because he won an upset election last November by a razor-thin margin, less than 1 percentage point.

The GOP goals are varied: They can eliminate the Democrats’ supermajority in the Senate. They can send lawmakers a message that voting for a tax hike could be politically fatal. And they can — at least briefly — try to change the subject from a quirky president to a proven winning issue: taxes.

It just seems all a big waste of energy and money to recall someone for one sensible vote.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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