The sharpest statewide political battle this November will be fought over California’s still-new gas tax, with billions of dollars for road and transit upgrades at stake in a repeal measure that has now earned a place on the ballot.
Leading Republicans in the state, including gubernatorial candidate John Cox, are supporting the repeal, while Democrats are staunchly opposed. The two camps, including their proxies and allies, are expected to dump millions of dollars into swaying voters’ decision on the ballot initiative.
If approved, it would roll back a tax increase signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown as part of plan to raise approximately $52 billion for transportation fixes through higher fees at the pump and other charges.
At stake for Sonoma County is more than $170 million for regional projects such as the Highway 101 widening, fixes to traffic-clogged Highway 37 and northward expansion of the SMART commuter rail line.
Additionally, upwards of $19 million in annual city and county road improvement dollars would be lost if voters back the repeal, according to local transportation officials.
“It is everywhere in the region that will be affected,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who is closely tied into the North Bay’s transportation issues. He and other local officials — nearly all Democrats — have signaled they will come out swinging against the repeal in whatever capacity they can.
“It’s literally every road, and paving of neighborhood roads, too,” Rabbitt said. “It would be foolish to go down that route. Our infrastructure will go to hell and we won’t see any improvement if that’s the case.”
But California’s GOP leaders, who’ve seen their party repeatedly shut out in statewide elections, sense they may have a winning strategy, appealing to a tax-sensitive electorate in a state where the cost of living continues to soar.
Tim Hannan, a registered Republican and president of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association, said those higher costs, fueled in part by taxes, continue to drive working families out of the state. He plans to vote in favor of the gas tax repeal after what he said was a history of seeing funds dedicated to California’s crumbling infrastructure spent elsewhere.
“I like the idea of repealing the gas tax,” Hannan said, speaking on his own behalf because the taxpayers’ association has not weighed in on the measure. “California government needs to do a better job setting its priorities and budgeting more carefully. So we need an alternative, and the initiative serves that purpose. If the voters decide one particular way, they have to be honored.”
The tax increase at issue, Senate Bill 1, passed the Legislature last year virtually along party lines, with Democratic backers hailing it as a major victory for ailing road infrastructure and mass transit lines.
After the new taxes took effect last November, conservative opponents, including Cox, the GOP nominee for governor, soon began collecting signatures to challenge the law. Support poured in from national party leaders, including U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, who helped fund the initiative campaign.
For Brown, who finishes his last term in January, the fight is for the future of one of his chief accomplishments — a funding stream to help modernize California’s aging transportation network. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democrat running to succeed him, opposes the repeal because it would defund safety upgrades to the state’s transportation infrastructure, according to a spokesman with his campaign.