California Republicans have a taxing problem: Should they rest their party’s sagging fortunes on voters’ desire to reject higher gasoline taxes via a referendum next fall?
Once upon a time in California, this was a no-brainer. We’re the land that nearly 40 years ago approved Proposition 13 on property taxes to and put anti-tax pitchfork rebellions on the map. Twenty-five years later, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a wrecking ball to a beat-up Oldsmobile – “hasta la vista, car tax,” he quipped – to symbolize the public’s disdain for a higher vehicle license fee. As recently as 2010, Gov. Jerry Brown avoided the third rail by saying he’d raise taxes only with voter approval.
And then a funny thing happened.
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California voters agreed not once but twice – Proposition 30 in 2012 and Prop. 55 in 2016 – to raise personal income taxes. Earlier this year, Brown and the Legislature raised the state’s gas tax by 12 cents a gallon. That decision is what got us to this point: state Republicans mulling two repeal measures.
So where does this put California in the greater context of American politics? Ironically, pretty much in the same league as some decidedly non-progressive states.
Just 12 days after Brown signed California’s gas tax hike, South Carolina did exactly the same – a 12-cent increase in its gas tax that went into effect after a legislative override of a gubernatorial veto. This is South Carolina (“too small for a republic and too big for an asylum”), where “resistance” means “the war of northern aggression,” not the Trump administration.
If you think that’s an anomaly, check out Oklahoma – like South Carolina, one of America’s 10 most conservative states. Before the year is over, Sooner lawmakers may sign off on a 6-cent gas tax increase. As in South Carolina: it’s Republican legislature and governor.
Does this mean that conservatives in the Deep South and Oil Patch suddenly have become born-again taxers? Of course not.
But it does suggest that they’ve learned something from, of all people, Jerry Brown: It comes down to the art of the sell.
Five years ago, Brown understood the value in linking taxes to Californians’ desire for better schools. He’s peddled the higher gas tax as all about fixing the state’s crumbling roads. It’s been the same hard sell in South Carolina and Oklahoma: Higher taxes mean a better driving experience.
This presents a challenge for California Republicans. Voters may not like paying more at the pump. And perhaps in our car culture, there’s a knee-jerk reaction to making driving more expensive.
But being on the “no” side of better roads is a bad place to be when voters are sick of potholes, gridlock and seeing their estimated time-of-arrival soar like the stock market.
For GOP strategists, the smarter play might be selling voters institutional doubt: Will the tax increase actually improve roads?
In South Carolina, anti-tax advocates have gone down that road (pardon the pun), lamenting crony capitalism and warning that lawmakers could use the money for other spending.
Ballot measures are tricky. Perhaps the gas tax will be repealed. But I wouldn’t count on voters just going along with a party that only says “no.”
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.