Ag Today June 9, 2017

If you don’t like California’s gas tax increase, you’re not alone


California voters overwhelmingly oppose a recent tax and fee package pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic-dominated Legislature to pay for road repairs, a new poll finds.

The gas tax law, which ushers in a 10-year program to raise more than $52 billion for transportation projects, is so unpopular it could backfire on Democrats in upcoming elections.

Fifty eight percent of voters oppose Senate Bill 1, including 39 percent who say they strongly reject the legislation, according to the survey from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. Only 35 percent favor the law, which raises taxes on gasoline and diesel and hikes vehicle registration fees to fix roads and highways.

The opposition is widespread. Voters in all major regions of the state other than the Bay Area, all listed races and ethnic subgroups, and all age categories over 30 are unhappy about it. Strongly liberal voters are the only group in which a large majority supports the law.

Senate Bill 1 endeavors to raise $5.2 billion annually through a 12-cent gas tax increase that begins in November and a new fee based on the value of vehicles.

The bottom line, said poll director Mark DiCamillo, is that people don’t like to have their taxes increased. He recalled how the late pollster Mervin Field, who chronicled public opinion for decades in California, was fond of saying that the pocketbook nerve is the most sensitive political nerve in a person’s body.

“When you are reaching into somebody’s pocket for more money, people start to pay attention and get alarmed,” DiCamillo said.

Democrats in closely contested legislative districts could pay a price for raising taxes, he said. “That’s where you might see it rear its head – in competitive districts,” he added.

An early indicator for how the gas tax could play out in next year’s legislative elections is the pending recall effort of Democratic Sen. Josh Newman in Southern California.

Newman, a freshman lawmaker who supported the tax hike despite winning by fewer than 2,500 votes last fall, would stand before voters again if his opponents can gather enough signatures to put the recall on the ballot.

Separately, Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, has begun an effort to put a repeal of the gas tax on the statewide ballot.

The gas tax survey suggests lawmakers are already feeling the effects of their votes, DiCamillo said. It showed a large drop in voter assessments of their job performance since the last Berkeley IGS Poll in March. As many voters disapprove (50 percent) as approve (50 percent) of the job they are doing, compared with the 14-percentage point advantage they held in March, when they had 57 percent approval.

Still, one politician who appears to have emerged from the tax hike politically unscathed is the man who helped orchestrate – and sell – the deal: Brown. After the vote, he repeatedly defended offering nearly $1 billion in district-specific funding projects to win skeptical lawmakers’ support.

The Democratic governor, in his final term, saw virtually no change in his positive job performance rating, which now stands at 59 percent approval and 41 percent disapproval.

DiCamillo attributed the status quo in Brown’s popularity to voters not paying much attention to the lobbying effort behind the gas tax.

“Most Californians aren’t following the day-to-day machinations of how the laws gets made, who’s doing what,” he said. “They are not process people. That’s inside baseball.”