Gas Tax Boost Is Smaller Than the Backlash

Joe Mathews

Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)


The gas tax is a perfect distillation of what’s wrong with Gov. Brown’s small ball politics.

He pursued a policy that’s too small, and too safe.

On a policy matter, it doesn’t produce much. It produces revenues that aren’t enough to do more than make a small dent in the state’s infrastructure needs.

But politically it has downside risks bigger than the small policy benefit. Republicans have stoked a backlash against it that has broken through into the popular conversation. Car dealers are having “gas tax” sales. It also forces Democrats to defend against a recall, and to keep addressing the issue deep into 2018.

This could have national consequences. If the gas tax draws enough Republicans to the polls to keep most of California’s Congressional Republicans in office, it could deny the Democrats control of the House of Representatives. And that would mean that the party would struggle to stop Trump’s agenda—and could give up on hopes of removing him from office. Since Trump seems devoted to policies of punishing Californians, the downside risks are huge.

It would be one thing to take such political risks if the tax was a game changer on infrastructure. But it’s not. Indeed, it could make the problem worse—because the gas tax, and Brown’s salesmanship of it, creates the media perception that the roads and infrastructure program has been dealt with. If a political leader tries to address the problem comprehensively in the future, they’ll be asked why the gas tax didn’t do the trick.

Brown is routinely described as some sort of political genius. But he’s not changed the trajectory of the state, or made much progress on our biggest problems. Instead, he’s pursued measures that represent a small start at a problem – the small rainy day fund or his water bond are good examples – while creating a perception that something bigger has been done.

He will be a tough act for the next governor to follow. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

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