Newsletter: The Prop. 6 delusion: better roads with lower taxes

Rush-hour traffic makes its way along the 101 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles.
(Richard Vogel / Associated Press)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Rarely does a ballot initiative emerge showing everything that’s wrong with direct democracy in California as Proposition 6. The initiative, which goes before voters on Nov. 6, would repeal the 12-cent tax increase on gas and other fee bumps for motorists that were passed as part of Senate Bill 1 by the state Legislature in 2017.

Naturally, people don’t like to pay higher taxes — and in California, people especially don’t like to pay higher taxes on driving, even if the revenue pays to fix the road wear caused by motorists and other badly needed transportation upgrades. This is where the initiative process, and unfortunate timing in the form of a looming gubernatorial election, come in to thwart the unpopular but responsible decisions legislators must make. Hence, Proposition 6.

But if a 12-cent tax increase is enough to excite voters into another ballot rebellion, they should look much harder at exactly what the rest of their gas money covers. UC Berkeley energy economist Severin Borenstein finds that a larger amount than 12 cents per gallon is a surcharge by oil companies that they cannot explain:

So far this year, California’s gas price has been about 80 cents a gallon above the average of all other states. Higher state gas taxes account for about 23 cents of the difference. An additional 3 cents on average is due to local sales taxes, which vary by county.

Then there are the fees to address environmental impacts, mostly climate change. The state’s cap-and-trade program on greenhouse gases has added 12 cents a gallon in 2018, and our “low carbon fuel standard” has pushed the cost up by about 8 cents. Finally, we pay 2 cents to clean up old gas station sites where fuel leaked into the soil.

Add that up and Californians are paying about 48 cents a gallon more to state and local authorities than the average American. That’s real money considering that we use about 1 gallon of gasoline per person per day.

At least that 48 cents buys us some real benefits: It goes to repairing roads and bridges, building needed new infrastructure for our rapidly expanding economy, and helping low-income California families afford energy. A bit of it, it’s true, goes to more controversial projects such as high-speed rail (about 3 cents), but the majority pays for bread-and-butter public services that we use every day.

But what about the rest of that extra 80 cents a gallon? A slice of the remaining difference pays to refine oil so that it meets California’s cleaner-burning gasoline formula, adopted in 1996. Most analysts think that the cleaner formulation adds no more than 10 cents to what we pay at the pump.

That leaves the mystery surcharge, which is 22 cents a gallon this year. I’ve broken down the cost of gas annually for more than a decade: The surcharge averaged 2 cents from 2000 to 2014 and was never more than 12 cents in any of those years. But everything changed in 2015.

As chair of the Petroleum Market Advisory Committee to the California Energy Commission, I watched gas prices skyrocket after a refinery explosion in Torrance in February 2015. The committee expected tighter supply to drive up prices, as it had done after previous refinery accidents. But we also expected prices to return to normal levels after the refinery resumed production. They didn’t. For the rest of the year, the mystery surcharge was about 48 cents a gallon.

What was more disturbing was that it continued at unprecedented levels in 2016 (29 cents) and 2017 (27 cents), long after the Torrance refinery was back at full production.

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For the record, The Times Editorial Board opposes Proposition 6 — as in, really, really opposes it: “Infrastructure isn’t cheap, and Californians will pay the price no matter what. Delaying maintenance only makes the work more expensive later on and the system more dangerous. Or we can pay a little more at the gas pump now for a smoother, safer and more efficient transportation system. Take the responsible road and vote no on Proposition 6.” L.A. Times

This almost makes me want to vote for Proposition 6 (I would never, but still): An op-ed article in the New York Times — written by a graduate student in California, so I’ll give it that — lectures us in all the ways we’ve heard before why Proposition 6 is such a bad idea: It deprives public transportation of robust funding, our roads will continue to crumble, and carbon emissions from cars will continue to increase. New York Times

“That Supreme Court confirmation went smoothly,” said absolutely no one talking about Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Columnist Jonah Goldberg warns that we’ll see much more of this in the future: “Many [liberals] now flock to the banner of ‘socialism’ the way the Bannonites rallied for nationalism. And both sides are doubling down on identity politics — Trumpists rushing to the defense of men, and leftists calling out white women who don’t toe the line as ‘gender traitors.’ This is how we got here. It will get worse because there are no incentives to be better.” L.A. Times

Pay less attention to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, because once again the science on which they are based is under question. Science journalist Nina Teicholz focuses on Brian Wansink, the former head of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, whose research on people’s food choices helped inform government recommendations on what we should eat. Problem is, Wansink’s research couldn’t hold up to scrutiny, leading Teicholz to warn: “When imperfect data shape headlines, and the entire Dietary Guidelines, the losers are science itself and, quite clearly, the public health.” L.A. Times

Vote-by-mail ballots are already being sent out. Here are The Times Editorial Board endorsements so far for the Nov. 6 election:

U.S. Senator: Dianne Feinstein

Lieutenant governor: Ed Hernandez

Attorney general: Xavier Becerra

Secretary of state: Alex Padilla

Controller: Betty Yee

Treasurer: Fiona Ma

Insurance commissioner: Steve Poizner

Proposition 1 (affordable housing): Yes

Proposition 2 (mentally ill housing): Yes

Proposition 3 (water bond): No

Proposition 4 (children’s hospitals): Yes

Proposition 5 (property taxes): No

Proposition 6 (motorist taxes): No

Proposition 7 (daylight saving time): Yes

Proposition 8 (dialysis centers): No

Proposition 10 (rent control): Yes

Proposition 11 (EMT pay): Yes

Proposition 12 (chicken cages): Yes

California Supreme Court and 2nd District Court of Appeal: Yes to all judges

L.A. Charter Amendment B (public bank): No

L.A. County sheriff: Jim McDonnell