Just weeks before it takes effect, California's new gas tax increase is again under attack, with Republicans mounting a growing campaign against the higher levies.
Celebrated by Democrats as a victory for Californians weary of traveling the state's distressed roads and highways, the law now faces repeal in two possible ballot initiatives floated by its opponents. Several of California's Republican members of Congress endorsed that effort this week, all but ensuring the tax hikes will be a major issue in the 2018 election.
The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown acted in April to approve increased fuel taxes and new vehicle fees to raise $5.2 billion annually for road and bridge repairs and improvements to mass transit. On Nov. 1, the base excise tax on gasoline will increase by 12 cents per gallon, bringing it to 30 cents, and the excise tax on diesel fuel will jump 20 cents per gallon to 36 cents per gallon.
Concerned that the gas tax could become a political hot potato in the next election, a coalition of business and civic groups called Fix Our Roads recently sent a letter to California's 14 Republican members of Congress, telling them the state desperately needs to increase spending on its crumbling infrastructure.
It came with a pointed warning: There would be a "robust and powerful" campaign against any initiative to repeal the increases, and such an effort would become a "self-defeating" distraction for Republican incumbents seeking reelection.
"We don't think your objective is to create new political adversaries," said the Sept. 14 letter by 20 groups including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the League of California Cities.
It was swiftly denounced as a "political threat" by a group of 11 Republican members of Congress from California, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). The GOP lawmakers responded with a letter of their own Thursday, saying they support the repeal of the gas tax and vehicle fees.
"The passage of SB 1 represents a bailout for our transportation programs have been habitually raided, mismanaged, and not made a priority in Sacramento," the lawmakers said. "Hard working California taxpayers should not be on the hook because Democrats in Sacramento have failed to make transportation a priority."
The members of Congress also objected to approving tax increases without a vote of the people.
"When the Fix Our Roads coalition is done making political threats and is interested in discussing real, long term solutions to our transportation challenges, please know that our doors are always open," concluded the letter, which was also signed by Reps. Ken Calvert of Corona, Darrell Issa of Vista, Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa, Devin Nunes of Tulare, Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, Duncan Hunter of Alpine, Doug LaMalfa of Richvale, David Valadao of Hanford, Steve Knight of Palmdale and Mimi Walters of Irvine. Republican Reps. Ed Royce of Fullerton, Jeff Denham of Turlock and Paul Cook of Yucca Valley have not commented on why they did not sign the letter.
Michael Quigley, executive director of coalition member California Alliance for Jobs, said the gas tax repeal effort is looking to "maximize political benefit for a handful of Republican congressional members." He added that voters will be more supportive of the gas tax hike if they know it's going toward projects in their communities.
Republican political consultant Dave Gilliard, a strategist for Hunter, Issa, LaMalfa and Walters, filed papers last month to put an initiative on the November 2018 ballot that would repeal the gas tax and vehicle fee increases and amend the state Constitution to require voter approval for future tax boosts.
The proposal awaits a title and summary from the state attorney general's office before supporters can begin collecting the 587,407 signatures needed to qualify it for the ballot. Gilliard said he's conducted polling on the issue and is confident that the gas tax is "overwhelmingly unpopular." He's advised all of his clients to publicly come out against it, he said.
"I've told all of them that the Democrats handed us a gift by passing this very unpopular bill and we should take advantage of it."
Conservative radio talk show host and former San Diego City Council member Carl DeMaio said the support from California's Republicans in Congress is a big boost for the effort.
"It's hard to take on the machine in Sacramento," he said.
In addition to pushing for repeal, DeMaio's group has collected more than 100,000 signatures in an effort to force a recall election of state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) for his vote in favor of the gas tax.
Meanwhile, a second initiative to repeal the gas tax, proposed by gubernatorial candidate and Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach, is not likely to get the financial support expected for DeMaio's ballot measure.
The Assemblyman was buoyed by a June poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley that found some 58% of registered voters opposed the gas-tax increases.
But a new poll released Wednesday found 53.9% of California residents oppose repealing the new gas tax and vehicle fee hike. The poll of 1,000 people via phone interviews and email indicates the gas tax has a good chance of surviving a challenge, said pollster Adam Probolsky, president of Probolsky Research in Newport Beach. Probolsky said the gas-tax poll was not paid for by any client.
DeMaio denounced the results as "a complete crock of manure manufactured by Sacramento insiders to try to spook elected officials into not backing a repeal of the gas tax."
Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican consultant who is not working on either of the initiative campaigns, said he believes the gas tax hike is so toxic that it will transcend partisan politics.
"I don't even think it's potent as a Republican turnout issue," Roe said. "I think it's potent because everybody hates it, it's so regressive."
But DeMaio and Allen are predicting California voters will be angry when the new taxes and fees kick in.
"For California's working families, this is really going to be a crushing blow," DeMaio said.