California

Voters want a gas tax repeal. Many California leaders call it a horrible idea.

Proposition 6 leader Carl DeMaio, center, and Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, left, stand in front of signed petitions to get the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot in San Diego in April.
Proposition 6 leader Carl DeMaio, center, and Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, left, stand in front of signed petitions to get the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot in San Diego in April. AP

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The California Influencers Series

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No politician would ever promise to make our commutes longer. No voters beg for more crowded highways. Everybody hates traffic. The question is what should we do about it?

And more specifically, how should we pay for it?

We asked the California Influencers, a group of policy and political experts, to weigh in on Proposition 6, which would repeal last year’s gasoline tax and vehicle fee increases to repair roads and fund other transportation projects. While the majority of them spoke against the measure, the wide range of opinions on the volatile topic provides a valuable framework for the campaign ahead.

On one side, the state’s business and labor leaders have put aside their differences in order to oppose the gas tax repeal.

“Proposition 6 would have a devastating impact on our state’s economy,” said Cesar Diaz, legislative and political director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council, predicting increased safety hazards, threats to other state funding priorities and likely job losses if the initiative were passed. “California faces a serious threat from the lack of investment in our transportation system. As we deal with the impacts of population growth and climate change it is imperative that our state move people and goods safely and efficiently.”

“The initiative will stop critical transportation projects and jeopardize the safety of our bridges and roads,” agreed California Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Alan Zaremberg. “Nothing would set back our efforts to improve public safety and mobility more than passage of Proposition 6.”

Former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George took a more philosophical view.

“It is said that there is no such thing as a free lunch,” George said. “There also is no such thing as getting away with not spending tax dollars to meet California’s growing need for bridges and roads that are safe for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, that are free of potholes, and that are designed to reduce traffic congestion.”

Increases to California's gas tax were approved in 2017 and will continue for years.

But most public opinion polls show that the opponents of Proposition 6 face an uphill fight, as large numbers of Californians support the repeal.

Harmeet Dhillon, Republican National Committee member and partner in the Dhillon Law Group, summarized one of the strongest arguments in favor of the initiative.

“California needs to upgrade its crumbling infrastructure using general purpose funds rather than overtaxing citizens more with the most regressive possible tax, a gasoline tax that hurts the hardest-hit Californians,” Dhillon said. “We should also immediately cease all efforts on the badly designed, outmoded and over-budget ‘bullet train’ fantasy of Governor Brown, and re-purpose any existing budgeted funds to infrastructure repair and upgrades.”

“Proposition 6 will provide immediate financial relief to the California citizens who need it the most: our hardworking middle- to low-income workers,” agreed Linda Ackerman, president of the Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service series. “There does not appear to be any real assurance that this raid on their gas tax dollars will not occur once again.”

Former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin opposes the initiative, but also warns that solving the state’s transportation crisis will take much more than additional tax dollars.

“The state also needs aggressive reform to speed up project delivery, public-private partnerships to unlock sources of private capital and … improved efficiencies in transportation systems at both local and state agencies,” Swearengin said. “Unfortunately, the voices that are loudest in support of raising more revenue are often silent when it comes to also pushing for badly needed reforms.”

“Funding alone is not the answer,” agreed Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman. “Improving project delivery of major transportation projects must also be a high priority. We waste untold sums and time on our biggest and most meaningful projects. Expanding our use of public private partnerships to finance, build and operate our transportation infrastructure also holds great promise.

And Kim Belshé, executive director of First Five LA, offered a broader assessment of the costs of inaction, emphasizing the impact on the state’s families.

“Californians currently (have) a transportation system that is bad for our health, bad for our environment and robs families of quality time together. We often hear congestion stymies work productivity, but we rarely hear about its effects on the family,” Belshé said.

“Just as California has focused on renewable energy to reduce the need for fossil fuels and power plants, we must rethink our transportation system to work better for children, families and communities by reducing … commutes. This means looking at the connections to housing and jobs and rethinking our streets to be communal spaces where families can accomplish their daily routines without spending hours in soul-crushing traffic.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.
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