Proposition 6: Repeal the gas tax increase?

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Just about every day, Carl DeMaio, chairman of the Proposition 6 campaign, tells voters just how much he hates a gas tax increase passed by California legislators last year, and why volunteers are needed to help repeal it.

His central argument? Working Californians, who are already burdened with high taxes, just can’t afford to pay more at the pump.

“The truth is that people are struggling because the higher cost of living,” DeMaio told voters at recent gathering in the south Los Angeles County community of Bellflower. “And the gas tax is going to add, for a typical family of four, $779.28  in higher costs each year. That’s a Christmas for many families. That’s real.”

Proposition 6 chairman Carl DeMaio addresses a group of voters in Bellflower with a freshly minted Yes on 6 yard sign in the foreground. Every week, DeMaio criss-crosses the state in his Jeep to raise fund for the measure and recruit volunteers to pass the measure.(Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

If Proposition 6 passes it would repeal SB 1, legislation that increased the California gas tax by 12 cents a gallon for regular fuel and 20 cents a gallon for diesel. Prop 6 would also rollback increases in California vehicle registration fees approved in the same bill.

In addition, the ballot measure would require all future gas tax proposals be approved by both the state legislature and voters in ballot measure form.

DeMaio, who’s a conservative talk radio host in San Diego and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor, also hopes Prop 6 will ignite a a wider anti-tax populist revolt in California, one reminiscent of the Proposition 13 property tax reduction campaign of the 1970s.

“You can actually rock Sacramento,” he told voters. “You can turn things right-side up in Sacramento.”

But California’s gas tax increase is expected to generate over $50 billion in revenue over the next decade. That money is supposed to be spent on new transportation projects across the state, from light rail lines to bicycle lanes. And more immediately, that money will underwrite long overdue repairs to existing bridges, freeways and roads.

Prop 6 opponents argue that if you take the gas tax away and it will threaten all those repairs and California’s transportation infrastructure will continue to decay without maintenance and improvements.

At a recent press conference adjacent to a rutted and pothole-filled road near LAX, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti blasted Prop 6 for being short-sighted and threatening improvement on just about every freeway in Los Angeles County.

Let me make it simple,” said Garcetti, “to ease congestion, to improve safety, to fix PCH, the 5, the 110, the 60, the 405 and so much more, vote no Prop 6.”

Surrounded by union members in the construction trades, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti makes his arguments against Proposition 6. The press conference was held adjacent to a street in near of repairs and a light rail station under construction that’s partially funded with Prop 6 revenue.(Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In their political advertising, Prop 6 opponents are doubling down on the pubic safety arguments for defeating the ballot measure. In essence, they say if California doesn’t fix its transportation infrastructure, people will die.

According to Carl DeMaio, the public safety arguments being used against Prop 6 amount to fear-mongering, and that much of the billions of dollars raised by the gas tax will be misused by politicians and state workers.

And they lie and say bridge safety is going to be compromised, DeMaio told voters at the Bellflower event. “Oh, give me a break!..You don’t give a rip about bridge safety and potholes. No. The only hole you’re trying to fill is the special interest hole, the pension hole.”

But opponents of Prop 6 note that voters have already passed a state constitutional amendment that requires gas tax revenues be spent solely on transportation projects.

The ballot measures critics say those pushing Prop 6 are doing it for politics, not tax relief, using the measure as a way to get more Republicans elected by energizing conservative voters and getting them to the polls. While, there they might also vote for Republican candidates.

 “ Is is good for me? Of course it is,” said Mike Simpfenderfer, a Republican candidate for the California Assembly who’s hoping to ride Prop 6’s coattails into office. 

“And when we look at all the polling, no matter who does the poll, the minute you put in gas tax, it goes nuclear,” said Simpfenderfer. “It’s on people’s minds. Because what do they do a couple of times a week? They fill up.”

Earlier this year at a transportation summit at L.A.’s Union Station, Governor Jerry Brown, an ardent critic of Prop 6, blasted Republican candidates supporting the ballot measure, especially Republican congressional incumbents in tight congressional races.

“And the test of American strength is wether we defeat this stupid repeal effort, which is a Republican stunt to return a few of their losers to Congress,” a heated Brown told the audience. “And we aren’t going to let that happen. We aren’t going to let that happen.”

But the partisan divide over Prop 6 isn’t that clearcut. Four Democratic congressional candidates running in districts with Republican incumbents have come out in support of the ballot measure, arguing, like Carl DeMaio, that the gas tax is too burdensome on working California families.

On roads and freeways across the state, Caltrans has put up signs emphasizing how money raised by the gas tax increase is being used to break ground on transportation improvement projects. Prop 6 supporters say the signs are a misuse of public dollars. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In the final weeks of the campaign, opposition to Proposition 6 has picked up momentum and collected lots of money. Construction companies, labor unions and Democrats have raised more than $30 million to defeat the measure, while the pro side has less than a million dollars in their coffers.

But the final fate of Prop 6 might not depend on dollars, but rather what Californians feel in their gut when they go to the filling station. Is paying 12 cents more for a gallon of gasoline too burdensome? Or is it worth it if it pays for more transportation options and noticeably better freeways and roads.