Pumped for battle

Out-of-state Republicans poured money into repeal effort hoping to weaken Dems

As city governments marshal their opposition to a Republican-led repeal effort of California’s new gas tax, the fate of the 12 cent-per-gallon surcharge could have broader implications for the Democratic Party.

Opponents of Senate Bill 1, buoyed by contributions from big-name conservatives like House Speaker Paul Ryan, succeeded earlier this year in placing a referendum on the tax, Proposition 6, on the November ballot. Around the Sacramento region, local leaders are now having to scramble to defend the law.

A spokeswoman for Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg confirmed his opposition to Prop. 6. The city’s director of governmental affairs, Consuelo Hernandez, said that while the City Council has yet to take a formal position, which could come in September, Sacramento would lose money if Prop. 6 passes and repeals the gas tax.

“It’s very difficult to fund transportation projects so all funding sources are pretty valuable,” Hernandez said.

Local leaders were reminded of this when Measure B, a Sacramento County transportation initiative, fell short of a supermajority in November 2016, erasing an estimated $3.6 billion in funding over the next 30 years.

Other cities in the region are also worried about the Republican gas tax attack. The August 15 agenda for Roseville City Council included a resolution to formalize opposition to Prop. 6, with a staff report noting that SB 1 is expected to generate $30 million over the next decade for city projects.

“This gas tax has been a real help to the city of Roseville,” said Councilman Scott Alvord. “We’ve been able to get projects done that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

Statewide, as much $5 billion annually for roads, bridge and traffic congestion work could be threatened if Prop. 6 passes, said Carolyn Coleman, executive director for the League of California Cities.

“It’s that intersection, it’s that exit ramp, it’s that bridge that you drive on each and every day,” Coleman said.

There’s a question if more voters in November will believe this or insistence from gas tax opponents that California already had ample transportation funds.

“I think that voters are seeing more and more that the Democrat leadership in the legislature, it has an insatiable appetite for tax dollars,” said Sacramento County Republican Party chair Betsy Mahan. “We think they need to learn to live within their means and we don’t think that we have an obligation to enable their spending habits.”

Roseville’s staff report noted that Prop. 69, passed resoundingly by California voters in June, requires “that certain revenues generated by the 2017 transportation funding law be used only for transportation purposes and generally prohibits the [legislature] from diverting funds to other purposes.”

Skepticism remains, though, with Mahan saying Prop. 6 supporters were preparing a 2020 ballot measure to dedicate original gas tax revenues to road maintenance and improvements, and to divert the car sales tax to state transportation rather than the general fund.

Prop. 6 could also be a call to arms in a critical midterm election that might determine future Supreme Court confirmations or even impeachment of President Donald Trump. Last month, New York Magazine wrote of Prop. 6 as “the not-so-secret weapon of California Republicans for boosting conservative turnout and saving vulnerable U.S. House members.” In May, the Los Angeles Times noted financial support for the proposition from Ryan and fellow House leaders Steve Scalise (R.-La.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield.)

Coleman said labor and public safety groups oppose Prop. 6. (Sacramento Central Labor Council executive director Fabrizio Sasso said via email that his group will follow the lead of the California Labor Federation and fight the repeal effort.)

“We are going to continue to be in every corner of the state, building the coalition and getting the word out about why people should vote no on Prop. 6 and why it’s really just an attack on our road safety and bridges that our residents use each and every day,” Coleman said.