June 28, 2018 2:00 PM, EDT

California Republicans See New Gas Tax as Rallying Point

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Out-of-state money is pouring into a campaign to overturn California’s newly enacted gas taxes and vehicle registration fees as Republican donors see a rallying point to drive conservative voters to the polls in November.

The ballot initiative, which takes aim at a $5 billion-a-year funding stream that would fix potholed highways, aging bridges and AC Transit buses, among other things, qualified June 25 for the Nov. 6 ballot.

Donors have given more than $2.3 million to Give Voters a Voice, the political group that gathered the signatures. That includes about $400,000 from federal political action committees and individuals outside California.

Among them are prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who chipped in $50,000 from his congressional campaign committee. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana donated $25,000. A real estate developer in Michigan sent $100,000.

RELATED: California Gov. Jerry Brown set to fight repeal of new gas tax

The far-flung donations show how the ballot measure fits into a broader GOP strategy. Inspired by this month’s successful recall in Orange County of state Sen. Josh Newman, a gas tax proponent, Republican activists are seizing on what they see as an opportunity to energize voters who also might support California gubernatorial candidate John Cox and Republicans in key House races.

“This is their turnout idea,” said Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman, who is skeptical that the strategy will work.

He said there is no evidence that ballot measures drive voters to the polls. And he predicted gas tax supporters would counter with their own message about decaying infrastructure and their own fundraising.

Give Voters a Voice and other groups have raised about $5 million. But they are being outspent by construction companies, labor unions and others who want to keep the tax intact.

Even so, recent polls show popular support for the repeal effort, and Cox has made it a central theme of his campaign. He and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who is up for re-election, are among the donors.

RELATED: Billions from gas tax and vehicle fees will go to transit projects, California officials announce

Carl DeMaio, a conservative talk radio host and chairman of Reform California, which launched the campaign to recall Newman, said the ballot initiative had drummed up enthusiasm among Democrats and Republicans alike.

“I want to get as many voters as possible out to the polls in November,” DeMaio said.

Supporters of the new taxes and fees have a more cynical view. To them, the attempted repeal is a carrot to lure voters to the midterm elections.

“That goes to show you what the real motivation is behind this,” said Michael Quigley, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs, a coalition of trade groups and labor unions that is defending the tax.

Speaking at a Commonwealth Club forum in San Francisco on state transportation issues, Quigley said the repeal movement “has nothing to do with supporting California’s future. It has everything to do with protecting a handful of Republican congressional seats.”

RELATED: Business groups say time is now to increase gas tax for roads

The measure would strike down a 12-cents-per-gallon gas excise tax increase and a 20-cents-per-gallon diesel fuel tax hike that the Legislature approved last year under Senate Bill 1.

If it survives, it is expected to raise $5.2 billion annually for roads, bridges and transit systems.

Many transportation planners view SB1 as a form of life support. Over the next 10 years, it is slated to provide $15 billion for highway repairs, $4 billion to mend bridges and culverts, and $2.5 billion to reduce traffic congestion.

SB1 will add about 68,000 construction and engineering jobs per year, Quigley said, noting that benefits would ripple to other economic sectors.

If the gas tax were wiped out, 5,000 projects would be immediately at risk, said Roger Dickinson, executive director of Transportation California, a nonprofit coalition of businesses and local agencies.

At the Commonwealth Club forum, he called the repeal initiative a partisan maneuver “that poses a severe threat to this vital funding stream.”

Reform California spokesman Dave McCulloch, though, blamed Sacramento politicians for the state’s transportation woes.

He rejected the notion that Republicans were driving the initiative, saying the “excitement behind it” comes from ordinary people who are tired of paying at the pump and fearing their money will be mismanaged.

RELATED: With gas taxes in peril, more states study alternatives

“Absolutely this is a bipartisan issue,” McCulloch said.

But the crusade to quash gas taxes and fees already has helped Republicans. Anger over high gas prices felled Newman, the Orange County senator, after he cast a key vote to approve SB1. By flipping the seat to Republican Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, the GOP prevented Democrats from re-establishing a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate this year.

Fifteen years ago, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was voted out of office in part because he infuriated constituents by raising vehicle licensing fees.

Republican strategist David Gilliard said he has taken polls on the gas tax issue and found that the people who are most outraged are those with long commutes to work.

That demographic “can barely afford to live in California,” Gilliard said. For them, he said, the added cost of about $1 for every gallon of gas is crippling.

DeMaio pointed out that the committee formed to defend the gas tax, called the Coalition to Protect Local Transportation Improvements, has received money from construction companies that are based out of state, along with $500,000 from the Washington-based International Union of Operating Engineers.

To date, the coalition has raised more than $8 million.

“We have more at stake,” Quigley said. “The other side is trying to help themselves stay in power. We’re doing this to have a stronger future for California.”

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