SAN FRANCISCO — It was enacted by the thinnest of margins: A 12-cent gasoline tax passed by lawmakers last year to finance a multibillion-dollar campaign to repair California roads and bridges hobbled by years of neglect and disrepair.
A measure to repeal the gas tax will appear on the California ballot, championed by Republicans opposed to it but looking to drive up Republican turnout in battleground congressional races.
Taxes have a long and complicated history in California. The state led the tax revolution in 1978, when voters passed Proposition 13 — slashing property taxes and requiring a two-thirds vote by the Legislature to raise them. Until now, the gas tax has not been raised for 25 years.
Still, California is one of the highest-taxed states in the nation. President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have repeatedly assailed California for its taxes. And John Cox, a Republican candidate for governor, has embraced the repeal of the gas tax as a centerpiece of his uphill campaign against Gavin Newsom, the Democratic candidate.
The tax, along with increased vehicle fees, would raise $5 billion a year.
The repeal has also shaped up as the last political battle for Gov. Jerry Brown, 80, a Democrat who is retiring after nearly a half a century in public life. Brown, in an interview, left no doubt he would fight to save the tax, pledging to raise well over $25 million in what is likely to be the latest in a history of expensive initiative campaigns that have long defined the state’s political and policy landscape.
“This has nothing to do with taxes,” Brown said. “This is engineered by the Republican congressional delegation to prop up their vulnerable Republicans in Orange County and the Central Valley. They don’t give a damn about the roads in California.”
The drive to save the gas tax is broadly supported by business and labor leaders, as well as Newsom, who is likely to succeed Brown. They argue that a repeal would stop projects already underway, as well as raise questions about how the rest of the nation can find the money to deal with an epidemic of deteriorating roads, highways and bridges.
“I drive on our roads every day,” said Allan Zaremberg, head of the California Chamber of Commerce. “They are in pretty terrible condition and deteriorating. Without this, the roads are going to deteriorate even more.”
But the obstacles are considerable. California gas prices are spiking, as they do each summer as the state switches to a lower-pollution — but more expensive — blend. The average price for regular gasoline is $3.66 a gallon in California, far above the national average of $2.80, according to figures compiled by the AAA.
Brown just signed his final budget, which projects a $6.1 billion surplus, money that Republicans are arguing should be used for road repairs, eliminating the need for a gas tax that forces Californians to pay more at the pump.
California Republicans have seized on the issue. Taxes have long been a point of divisions between Republicans and Democrats, and all the more so since Trump and congressional Republicans enacted a tax reform bill that severely reduced deductions for state and local taxes, posing a particular burden for California homeowners. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is the House majority leader and looking to become its next speaker, has contributed money to the repeal in an effort to save seven Republican congressional seats.
Cox said he had found a “ton of support” for the repeal.
“Whenever I am out campaigning, I always talk to working people — valet parking people, the desk clerks, the people behind the counter,” he said. “I ask people what do they think about the cost of living and the gas tax. And they say: ‘We can’t take this. We had to move an extra 20 miles away because we couldn’t find an apartment we could afford. And now we are sitting in traffic burning up gasoline at almost $5 a gallon.'”
“Mr. Brown and Mr. Newsom are being dishonest when they say these projects will come to a halt if we don’t have this tax,” he said. “They know that these road projects could be done if we changed work rules, if we used money more efficiently, if we cut better deals to make the process more efficiently.”
A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in May found 38 percent of voters said they supported the gas tax, a perilously low number; only 49 percent of Democrats said they supported it. Backers of the initiative gathered over 900,000 signatures to get it on the ballot; only 585,407 were needed.
“It has a lot of support in the business community. It’s part of Jerry Brown’s legacy. But to save it, people will have to spend a lot of money and he will have to get personally involved and they will have to change the way it’s talked about,” said Robert M. Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, which conducted the poll.
“If it’s talked about as the gas tax, I don’t see how it survives,” he said. “You have to talk about it in terms of safe bridges, a decent road system, the economic future and jobs.”
Brown has a long history with California initiatives, giving him what some Republicans say is an advantage.
He steered a 2012 initiative to impose an income tax surcharge to what was an unexpected victory after campaigning vigorously on its behalf. (That said, as governor, he campaigned against Proposition 13; it was easily passed and the next day Brown embraced it).
“They are not voting in favor of taxes,” Brown said of the repeal, signaling the argument he would use to try to defeat it. “The proposal is to kill $5 billion in investment in roads, bridges and transit and public safety. That’s the issue.”
In a warning for proponents of the gas tax, Republicans succeeded in recalling last month a California state senator, Josh Newman, a Democrat, for supporting it. “There is true bipartisan support for repealing the gas tax,” said Carl DeMaio, a Republican and former San Diego council member who is leading the repeal campaign. “We are seeing a lot of folks come on board. People feel that Brown has been wrong on this one at every turn.”
“It doesn’t matter how much money the governor tries to spend to sell an ice cream cone to an Eskimo,” he said. “People are either for it or against it.”
DeMaio said he thought the gas tax repeal on the November ballot would save the Republicans from what could have been a political shellacking.
“In California, they should have been able to see a mega-blue wave,” he said. “But because they overreached on this issue, because Jerry sold them a bill of goods, they are not in a position where they’ll make those gains.”
Dan Newman, a political consultant who is advising the campaign to protect the gas tax, said the high stakes of the election — and Trump’s unpopularity in Washington — would overshadow the gas tax.
“There are massive once-in-a-lifetime tectonic issues hanging in the balance that give people plenty of reasons to vote,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.