Ballot Prop Scorecard: Gas Tax Repeal Is Key
The late, great Hiram Johnson is best known as the California governor who brought forth the state’s renowned system of ballot initiatives, referenda and recalls.
Johnson is less remembered as a World War I–era isolationist U.S. Senator, however, albeit one who made an iconic declaration: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
Johnson’s historic dictum comes to mind as warring campaigns prepare to fling tens of millions of dollars in lying, deceitful, mendacious TV ads for and against 11 election initiatives — a spectacle he would be shocked his great populist reform spawned.
Three-dimensional chess. The most consequential matter is Prop. 6, a Republican-sponsored initiative to cut the price of gas by 12 cents.
The measure would repeal 2017 Democratic legislation increasing the state excise tax on auto fuel by 12 cents a gallon, earmarking it over 10 years for $52 billion of highway construction and repairs.
At first glance, it’s a traditional California tax-and-spend debate, with the GOP portraying themselves as the savior of the economically overburdened consumer and the Dems cast as greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number communitarians.
With Prop. 6, however, Republicans have a broader, not-so-hidden agenda than the price of gas in California, and the voters’ decision not only will help shape the state’s future political landscape but also go a long way in determining whether the Party of Trump maintains absolute power in Washington.
Here are three key, backstory elements of the Prop. 6 campaign:
1-Gentlemen of the House. National Republicans see Prop. 6 as a, off-the-shelf, get-out-the-vote election operation.
Party leaders, led by outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader (and wannabe speaker) Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, and Trump henchman Rep. Devin Nunes, kicked in more than $1 million to qualify Prop. 6.
They hope to boost turnout among their voters to help protect a half dozen endangered California GOP incumbents targeted in the Dems’ Hail Mary bid to win the House and a shred of federal power.
2-The way back? California Republicans, led by John Cox, the underdog challenger to Gavin Newsom for governor, view Prop. 6 as a long-shot hope to stage a stunning upset that wobbles Democratic hegemony and helps the GOP rally from its current ignominy.
“My hope is that the gas-tax repeal will provide a template on how the GOP can be relevant again in California,” Carl DeMaio, the radio yakker and former San Diego councilmember who leads the repeal campaign, told Politico. “The first milestone is making yourself relevant — and putting up ballot measures the Democrats support.”
DeMaio and fellow travelers are still exulting over their first political scalp: last month’s gas-tax-related recall of State Senator Josh Newman, a first-term Orange County Democrat.
3-What would Jerry do? The Prop. 6 political drama will be heightened by the high-profile role of outgoing Governor Jerry Brown, who led the battle to pass the tax-for-infrastructure bill, which he views as an important part of his legacy.
Brown has $14 million in his personal campaign account, which he could use against Prop. 6, but says it likely won’t be necessary because of the broad, business-labor coalition that supports public-works spending as necessary to the economy; they’ve already raised more than $12 million, one-third of it in the two weeks since the initiative qualified.
Defining the issue. Besides money for advertising, the Prop. 6 campaign will turn on who wins the fight to frame the fundamental argument:
To Republicans, it is nothing more than a taxes-are-too-high issue.
They will focus on pay-at-the-pump pain, noting that California’s gas prices ($3.67 per gallon in Santa Barbara in a recent measure) are far higher than average national prices (about $2.85 for the same period) and that state gas taxes are seventh highest in the nation, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.
Democrats will argue Prop. 6 is about good public policy and partisan politics.
They will focus on maddening traffic and district-by-district construction projects. S.B. Councilmember Gregg Hart, deputy executive director of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, for example notes that California “will be forced to revisit all previous funding decisions,” including $400 million awarded for the Highway 101 widening project, if Prop. 6 passes.
“This has nothing to do with taxes,” Governor Brown said recently. “This is engineered by the Republican congressional delegation to prop up their vulnerable Republicans in Orange County and the Central Valley. They don’t give a damn about the roads in California.”
From shelter to the surreal. To help cut through the fog of political warfare, here is a quick rundown on the other 10 props (we’ll have more detailed posts as the election approaches), organized by issue.
HOUSING MATTERS (Props 1, 2, 5 &10). Look for a multi-million dollars, truth-twisting battle over Prop. 10, a tenants’ rights proposal to lift California’s quarter-century moratorium on rent control, allowing local jurisdictions to impose new restrictions on landlords. To the surprise of no one, real estate interests are amassing piles of cash in opposition.
Prop. 1 is part of the package of housing legislation that Sacramento passed in 2017. It would authorize the state to sell, and pay 30 years of interest on, $4 billion in bonds to build affordable units.
Prop. 2 would authorize another $2 billion in housing, specifically for people with mental illness, and asks voters to approve a scheme to finance it with a previously approved income-tax surcharge on millionaires.
Prop. 5 would give geezer homeowners (we name no names) a break by allowing them to transfer their current tax rate if they move rather than pay higher property taxes likely to be imposed by buying a new place.
MEDICAL AFFAIRS (Props. 4, 8 & 11). A trio of initiatives boosted by various health-care special interests may generate an outbreak of head-scratching. Key question, as Newsmaker Lucius Cassius always asked - Who benefits?
The California Children’s Hospital Association, which won voter approval for more than $1 billion in infrastructure bonds in 2004 and 2008, backs Prop. 4, a bid for another $1.5 billion of taxpayer-backed bonding for repairs and expansions, primarily at nonprofit hospitals.
Prop. 8, backed by the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU), would require two big private companies that operate kidney dialysis clinics to rebate profits over 15 percent to insurers; according to the respected CALmatters.org, it’s part of an SEIU organizing strategy.
Prop. 11 would exempt private ambulance companies from a current law allowing EMTs to take a coffee break with their radios turned off. Seriously? Why are voters deciding stuff like this?
WATER, WATER (Prop 3). Prop. 3 is another huge, legislative-sponsored bond measure, seeking authorization for nearly $8.9 billion in debt to fund a vast collection of water-supply infrastructure projects. The debate may be less about need than cost — should California add to its current debt load of $120 billion?
Singular stuff. (Props. 7 & 12). Prop. 7 seeks to make California the first state to operate year-round on daylight saving time (many political obstacles would lie ahead – Congress, the President and, probably, Putin, would have to approve, not to mention two-thirds of the Legislature, if they all did), the better to cure spring-ahead, fall-back sleep disruption.
The Humane Society is behind Prop. 12, to ban the sale of eggs delivered by hens not domiciled in free-range habitats and to improve quality of life for veal calves and pigs. Free Wilbur and All Political Prisoners!
Wait – something’s missing! Alert Newsmakers by now will have noticed a glaring numerical hole in the ballot – the lack of a Prop. 9.
That’s because the California Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously to remove that measure, known as the “Three Californias” initiative, from the November ballot, in a suit filed by the Planning and Conservation League. The court said it will consider at a later time the constitutionality of the measure, to determine whether it can appear on a future ballot.
Prop. 9 was a vanity measure to “fix” California by splitting it into three separate, and very unequal, states, sponsored by venture capitalist Tim Draper. Emblematic of his plutocratic class of Silicon Valley disrupters, Draper seems certain that his private business prowess makes him a genius about public-sector matters.
Why else spend more than $1 million in personal couch change to qualify the measure, which calls for establishing three separate and very unequal states: The Central Coast would be part of nouveau “California” (at least we get to keep the name) running from Monterey through L.A. County.
Beyond countless political obstacles (see Prop. 7) — a Legislative Analyst report shows how Draper’s “Northern California” territory would reap huge financial benefits. Hmmm.
Hiram Johnson, RIP.
One in an occasional series about California's 2018 statewide campaigns. A version of this post also was published in the SB Independent.
Images: Hiram Johnson (Presidential History Geeks); Republican candidate for governor John Cox (R) and Carl DeMaio (Politico); (Colourbox); (Flickr; (The Last American Vagabond.com); (Phil Ebersol's Blog); Wilbur the Pig (Charlotte's Web Wiki); "Relativity," M.C. Escher (Yahoo).