California Gas Tax Divides Democrats Trying to Flip U.S. House

(Bloomberg) -- Some Democratic congressional candidates in competitive California races are bucking state party leaders and distancing themselves from an unpopular gas tax that Republicans are using against them in the November election campaign.

The 12-cent-per-gallon California gasoline tax, championed by California Governor Jerry Brown and passed by the state’s Democrat-controlled legislature last year, is emerging as one of the most contentious issues in a state that could be pivotal in the national battle to control the U.S. House.

“You could see the anger that people had with the gas tax, and that’s going to continue with the election,” said Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican party in California’s Orange County. “The more middle class you are, the harder it hits you.”

Democratic congressional candidates Ammar Campa-Najjar, Katie Porter and Josh Harder, all running for seats currently held by Republicans, are among those who’ve proclaimed their opposition to the tax in recent days. That puts them at odds with California’s Democratic party and many of its leaders, who support the levy as providing badly needed revenue to rebuild the state’s roads and bridges.

Public ‘Frustrated’

“They’re looking at the polling,” said Carl DeMaio, a Republican radio show host and one of the leaders of an effort to repeal the tax. “The public is frustrated -- Democrats, Republicans, all stripes.”

California has as many as 10 Republican-held House seats that Democrats are targeting to flip in the midterm election, the most of any state. The party needs a net gain of 23 seats to claim a majority -- and control -- of the House.

Opponents have gathered enough signatures to place a measure to repeal the gas tax on the November ballot. Polls from the Public Policy Institute of California, the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University have found broad support for a repeal, with the strongest backing coming from Republicans voters.

Republican members of Congress including Kevin McCarthy, Devin Nunes and Mimi Walters have contributed to the committee leading the repeal effort, which could help drive up Republican turnout in an election that has energized Democratic voters seeking to register their anger at President Donald Trump.

Infrastructure Funding

The levy, which includes additional fees from auto registrations and a 20-cent tax on diesel fuel, would raise about $5 billion annually for transportation-related infrastructure. Local governments have already begun spending the money. The California State Transportation Agency announced 28 grants totaling $2.6 billion in April for projects ranging from new subway cars in San Francisco to highways in Sacramento.

Marjie Kirn, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, said a repeal of the tax could cost the county $400 million in funding and impact projects from bike trails to adding extra lanes to the 101 freeway. She estimates it would take 50 years to accumulate enough funds to pay for the work based on the prior funding mechanism.

Pushback against the levy in a state that already has some of the highest gas prices in the country began almost immediately after it was passed last year. Josh Newman, a Democratic state legislator who supported the tax, lost his job in a recall measure in June.

Campaign Issue

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox is among the leaders of the campaign to repeal the tax. His strategist, Wayne Johnson, said Cox is using the tax to make a larger point about the state’s Democratic leadership.

“It’s iconic of all the things that are going wrong” in California, Johnson said. “You can’t afford to live near your work, and you can’t afford to drive there.”

Prominent Democrats supporting the tax include Brown, who will depart as the state’s governor in January; the Democratic candidate to replace him, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom; and Kevin De Leon, a candidate for U.S. Senate. A No on Proposition 6 campaign committee, billing the repeal effort as an attack on bridge and road safety, has raised $23.9 million from unions and associations such as the American Council of Engineering Companies and the District Council of Plasterers and Cement Masons.

Democratic congressional candidates Porter and Katie Hill have been subjects of negative ads released this month by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, claiming they supported the gas tax.

‘Real’ Investment

Erica Kwiathowski, a spokeswoman for Porter, said the candidate thinks the gas taxes are too much for her would-be constituents to bear, especially after the Republican-led tax reform in Washington took away deductions for local income taxes. “We need real infrastructure investment,” Kwiathowski said in a statement. “This tax doesn’t do that for our community.”

Gil Cisneros, a Democrat and first-time congressional candidate in an historically Republican seat in Orange County, said he didn’t support raising the tax but doesn’t support repealing it either. Jessica Morse, a Democratic candidate in northern California, has similar misgivings about the tax, but has stopped short of calling for a repeal.

California voters may themselves change their minds come November, according to Adam Probolsky, a public opinion researcher. His poll, released Friday, shows 48 percent of voters opposing the repeal and 36 percent supporting. He said that while voters don’t like the gas tax, when they read ballot language seeing the money is aimed at traffic relief and infrastructure improvement they’ll vote to keep it.

“Unless the repeal side spends huge, they cannot overcome the ballot language penned by the Attorney General,” Probolsky said.

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