The GOP and Prop. 6 Face Potholes in November

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

The California GOP’s Hail Mary pass seems to be falling flat.

Republican representation on the state’s Congressional delegation is on the verge of sinking into single digits, while Democrats are driving to lock in supermajorities in the Legislature and to score another sweep of statewide offices.

In an attempt to stave off devastation in the Golden State, California Republicans have sought to leverage blowback over gas tax increases to survive a likely blue wave–counting on the electorate’s aversion to taxes to save GOP candidates in November.

However, prospects for the passage Proposition 6—the gas tax repeal—appear to be going downhill and, with them, GOP electoral hopes.

The GOP isn’t bragging much about the federal tax package that limited deductions for state and local taxes.  Instead, Republicans hoped to change the subject with Proposition 6, the measure that would roll back the State’s twelve cent gas tax increase, passed in 2017 to fund highways and other transportation maintenance and improvements.  U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and his Republican allies poured millions of dollars into qualifying the repeal for the November ballot, as a means of jump-starting enthusiasm and turn-out among GOP voters.  GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox has made Proposition 6 the centerpiece of his underdog campaign.

It seemed like a good idea.  After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger highlighted repeal of the “car tax”—the vehicle license fee increase—in his successful gubernatorial campaign in the 2003 recall election.  More recently, Republicans recaptured a marginal State Senate seat with a successful recall against Josh Newman, who had cast a deciding vote in favor of the gas tax increase legislation.  For whatever reason, gasoline tax increases have never polled well in California or nationally.   Given President Trump’s unpopularity in California, the gas tax issue offered a way to change the subject.

The trouble is that Californians are every bit as concerned with gridlock and potholes as they are with taxes.  Over the past couple of decades, voters in counties up and down the state have approved sales tax increases to fund transportation projects in their areas by a two-thirds vote.  Even in so-called anti-tax bastions, such as Orange and San Diego Counties, measures enacting a sales tax for transportation have surpassed the super-majority requirement. Emphasis on local projects has driven support for these measures—the same tactic that is being employed in anti-Proposition 6 advertising.

Motorists are accustomed to the wide fluctuations in price at the pump.  Taxes affect price increases, but refinery shutdowns, spikes in crude oil pricing, environmental regulations and blips in the supply chain play a bigger role.   Unlike most other products, gasoline prices are clearly posted, and competition on the street has a huge impact.  Prices are usually a lot lower if there are 3 or 4 stations at an intersection.  With the ups and downs of pricing at the pump, most drivers would be hard-pressed to say when the gas tax increases took effect.  Given everything else people have to worry about, real backlash against gas tax hikes hasn’t materialized.

The California establishment is pretty much united against Proposition 6.  Business, labor. environmentalists, local governments and the construction industry have weighed in heavily against Proposition 6.  The NO side is vastly outspending Prop 6 proponents and the Republican Party and House leadership have turned off the funding tap for the YES side.   Recent polling indicates that Proposition 6 is in trouble.

A new USC Dornsife/L.A. Times survey shows 41% “Yes” on Prop. 6 and 42% “No.” That’s an ominous sign for Prop. 6 supporters, since initiatives usually need a solid majority in opinion polls going into the election, if they are to stand a chance of passage. This is especially true for Prop. 6, since the initiative’s opponents have a huge spending advantage going into the home stretch of the campaign.

For both Proposition 6 and the GOP, this fall, it is a particularly bumpy road in California.

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