A Tax By Any Other Name

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

A Sacramento judge’s re-writing of the gas tax initiative title and summary will have implications on a title and summary for a second initiative on the same subject–and then the battle begins whether one or both measures make the ballot.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley is probably a fan of the writing style of Winston Churchill. The British Prime Minister, known for his adept use of the English language, said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

The judge admonished the attorney general for trying to use the “amorphous and confusing term “revenues” to refer to “taxes” and “fees.””

The judge went on to say: “This is a remarkable argument since SB 1 raises new “revenues” solely by increasing taxes and fees.”

The judge’s direct approach secures Assemblyman Travis Allen’s successful challenge to the title and summary and emphasizes Allen’s desire to highlight the tax repeal. The initiative will serve as an important platform in Allen’s announced run for governor.

But the Allen initiative repeal is not the only game in town.

A second initiative to repeal the gas tax had been filed and has the backing of Republican Party activists.

Given Judge Frawley’s decision over the title and summary in the Allen v. Becerra case, expect the title and summary of the latter measure to hone closely to what Frawley dictated for the former initiative.

Republicans desperately want to see a tax repeal measure on the ballot for political reasons. With the possibility of an all-Democratic gubernatorial finale in November 2018, Republicans hope a gas tax repeal, which is unpopular in the polls, would drive to the ballot box voters that might otherwise sit out the election. Such a result could save some of the Republican congressional members who are targets for the Democrats who want to flip the House majority.

But which measure moves forward? Can it be both? Allen’s proposal is a statute and requires fewer signatures (365,880) to qualify for the ballot. The second proposal is a constitutional amendment declaring all gas taxes must face a vote of the people and needs more signatures (585,407) to qualify.

Still, the constitutional amendment qualifying mark is low by historical standards given the relatively small turnout in the last gubernatorial election, which determines the number of required signatures for initiative qualification. A solid financial campaign behind the amendment should make it easy to qualify.

One would expect a meeting of the minds—more likely a meeting of the electoral interests—involved in the campaigns to meld efforts and move one measure forward.

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