Capitol Journal: Gov. Brown can largely blame himself if the state’s gas tax increase is repealed in November

Carl DeMaio, John Cox, Jon Coupal
Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, center, blasts a recent gas tax increase during a news conference June 18 in Sacramento. Cox is flanked by Carl DeMaio, left, chairman of Reform California, and Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

His clever campaign ploy eight years ago has come back to bite Gov. Jerry Brown as he packs to leave office while fighting to save an unpopular gas tax increase.

When Brown announced his candidacy for another hitch as governor in 2010, he solemnly promised voters: “No new taxes unless you the people vote for them.”

It was an attempt to undermine Republican candidate Meg Whitman’s characterization of Brown as a tax-and-spend liberal. It worked, although Brown was never one of those lefties anyway. He won election comfortably.

Once in office, Brown continued advocating for voter veto power over taxes.


“This is a matter that’s too big, too irreversible, to leave just to those whom you’ve elected,” the governor asserted on YouTube in a so-called report to the people.

“This is a matter of we the people taking charge and voting on the most fundamental matters that affect all of our lives.”

Brown was calling for a special election on taxes. He needed more revenue to balance the state budget. But Republican legislators wouldn’t go along. So the governor sponsored a ballot initiative that socked the wealthiest Californians with the highest state income tax in the nation.

Today, Republicans pushing an initiative to repeal last year’s gas tax hike certainly would agree with the governor’s contention that tax increases are “too big” for just the governor and Legislature to handle.


Brown’s promise was only for one term. He backed off after being reelected in 2014. But he planted a seed in voters’ minds that has sprouted into what many consider a right. It isn’t, but will be if the repeal measure passes — at least for gas taxes.

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The initiative not only would wipe out the new fuel taxes and vehicle fees, it would require that any future such legislation be submitted to the voters for approval. The GOP-sponsored measure qualified for the November ballot on Monday.

Brown’s campaign promise was unfortunate because it surrendered powers given him by the state’s founders.

A California governor — just as a U.S. president — has the sole power to sign and veto bills. The Legislature can override a veto. And the voters can repeal a law if someone collects enough signatures to qualify a measure for the ballot. But there’s no constitutional provision that says a statute signed by a governor must also be OKd by the electorate.

Under the repeal measure, there would be such a requirement for gas taxes.

You’ve never seen a federal tax hike go to voters. That’s because the nation’s framers created a republic in which policy decisions are made by elected representatives, not directly by citizens. We’ve strayed far from that concept in California with special-interest-dominated initiatives. And we’ve paid for it, often with sloppily concocted laws.

Brown’s populist rhetoric offering voters a tax veto helped get him elected. But it also ultimately created a potent political tool for opponents of his gas tax hike.


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And politics is what the repeal effort is mostly about. It’s not so much about killing a tax increase. It’s about saving Republican U.S. House members who are in danger of losing their seats to Democrats in November. The theory is that a hot ballot measure to lower gas taxes will lure Republicans into voting, and they’ll also support threatened GOP House members.

National Republican leaders have been bankrolling the repeal campaign in an effort to protect GOP control of the House. Democrats need to flip 23 seats nationally to recapture it.

At stake in California is $5 billion annually in tax revenue earmarked mostly for road repairs. Here’s how it’s divvied: 65% for roads and bridges, split 50-50 between the state and local governments; 20% for transit; a portion for truck access around ports; and some for bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

After the repeal qualified for the ballot, Brown tweeted: “This flawed and dangerous measure pushed by Trump’s Washington allies jeopardizes the safety of millions of Californians by stopping local communities from fixing their crumbling roads and bridges.”

Brown also has urged voters: “Now is the time. Don’t blow it guys. I mean, I’m going off to my ranch. You’re going to be driving on these damn roads. Fix them now or you may never get them fixed.”

“Never” is a stretch. But the tax increase took years and a lot of bruised political hide to pass. Former Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman of Fullerton was recalled after he voted for the tax hike. Democratic leaders should have protected Newman by allowing him to abstain, but didn’t. If the tax is repealed, it’s doubtful the Legislature will summon the courage to raise more highway repair money for a very long time.


Repeal strategists regurgitate the popular myth that Democrats have stolen highway funds in the past and spent the money on non-transportation projects. Wrong.

Anyway, voters in the primary election approved a constitutional amendment that requires all the new fuel and vehicle tax revenue to be used for transportation.

There already are roughly 5,000 projects underway, big and small, the state says. Making sure voters know about them will be the key to beating back the repeal.

But if the repeal succeeds and every future gas tax has to be approved by voters, Brown can largely blame himself for implanting that foolish notion.

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