Silicon Valley Business Journal: Why support for California gas tax repeal may not be what it’s cracked up to be

November 13, 2017 
By: Jody Meacham

The prospect of a Republican-supported 2018 ballot measure repealing the gasoline tax increase that California enacted last summer would seem to be a serious concern for Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, which collectively stand to get $7.7 billion from the tax for road repair and transportation improvement projects over the next decade.

The tax’s prospects may seem especially dire after a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll that found 54 percent support for repealing it among California voters.

“Put to a popular vote, the gas tax for infrastructure is in trouble,” the paper quoted Robert Shrum, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California as saying. “I certainly would not want to start out at 47 percent support if I was in favor of this and there was a ballot measure.”

But in an interview with the Silicon Valley Business Journal, Shrum said California’s virulent anti-Trumpism and business support for the measure could help the tax survive if repeal makes the election ballot a year from now.

And Carl Guardino, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO who helped organize support for the tax bill, called SB 1, when Campbell Sen. Jim Beallintroduced it in the legislature, said he’s not concerned about repeal.

“It will be expensive, as these campaigns can be, but it will be defeated because the pros of improving the worst road conditions in almost the entire United States, as well as easing congestion on key corridors, is going to be much more compelling to folks” than the tax increase that funded them, Guardino said.

Absent some unanticipated “intervening event,” Shrum said he expects California’s political climate next November to be even more anti-Republican than it was last week in Virginia’s statewide elections. There, voters may have erased — pending recounts — a 66-34 GOP advantage in Virginia’s House of Delegates that political analysts in both parties attributed to the unpopularity of President Trump.

It might not be difficult to get the gas tax repeal on the ballot, Shrum said, but financing a credible campaign will be more difficult than the usual anti-tax issue in the election: “Normally they would go to business to fund an anti-tax campaign but a lot of California businesses want (the tax) because of the economic impact of deteriorating infrastructure.”

Framing the question

Guardino faulted the poll’s question, which described only the tax increases, for producing a misleading answer. His criticism was supported by two other polls, pitched by the California Alliance for Jobs, which is part of a statewide coalition supporting the tax.

One was conducted in early October and found when the question about gas tax repeal was coupled with a statement that it would mean the loss of the road repair and transportation programs it was enacted to fund, repeal support was only 35 percent while 54 percent opposed it.

A second survey by GOP pollster Jan van Lohuizen making the same connection between repeal and loss of projects said repeal was opposed 56-34. In addition, that poll found no evidence that gas tax repeal would energize Republican voters, who are the base of the anti-tax movement.

“Nobody likes taxes — that’s a given — and so if you ask people would you like a repeal of a certain tax, of course people are going to be interested in that,” said Michael Quigley, CEO of the

California Alliance for Jobs. “However, if you ask people would you like repeal of the benefit of that tax … voters don’t want to see reduced transportation investments.”

Shrum said he believed gas tax repeal could drive Republican voters to the polls but he said they are very dispirited in California at the moment.

“There is not a serious Republican candidate for (U.S.) Senate yet,” he said. “There may never be. It’s conceivable that you could have a November election between two Democrats for governor and President Trump is profoundly unpopular. When you get 53 percent of people saying they don’t want to cooperate with him ever, under any circumstances, that’s an amazing number.”

Tax weariness

Shrum described California as a “deep blue state tinged with tax weariness,” citing Proposition 30 in 2012, which raised income taxes on the state’s highest earners, and sales tax increases approved by voters in 2016 that funded homeless programs and transportation projects. But he noted those were supported by two-thirds majorities in Santa Clara County, the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

“I think you’ve got a lot of voters here who understand the infrastructure problem and while they may not be thrilled with the tax, they think something must be done.”