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House Republicans threatened with ‘robust and powerful’ battle over California gas tax

Jerry Brown says gas tax vote was above board

Gov. Jerry Brown on April 19, 2017 spoke with reporters about the gas tax increase to fix roads.
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Gov. Jerry Brown on April 19, 2017 spoke with reporters about the gas tax increase to fix roads.

Major backers of California’s recently approved gas tax and vehicle registration fee increases sent letters earlier this month to the Republican House delegation threatening political repercussions if its 14 members join a campaign to overturn the road repair funding plan.

The letter, signed by a coalition of 20 business, labor and local government groups that lobbied heavily for the fee hikes, sternly warns against pursuing an initiative to repeal the new taxes as a way to bolster GOP candidates in next year’s midterm congressional election.

“With so much at stake, our organizations will have no option but to mount a robust and powerful effort in opposition to this initiative, using the voices of California’s business community to counter your efforts,” the letter reads. “We don’t think your objective is to create new political adversaries.”

“Rather than enter into a battle that is likely only to be a distraction from your primary objective and self-defeating, we would like to engage you in a conversation to discuss the pitfalls of this approach.”

Critics of the tax hike, which is expected to generate $5.2 billion annually to fix California’s crumbling roads and public transit systems, filed a constitutional amendment in mid-September. It would not only undo the new fees, but prevent lawmakers from passing any future increases without a statewide vote.

While proponents of the measure cannot begin collecting signatures to qualify for the 2018 ballot until November, gas tax supporters were startled to hear rumors that California’s congressional Republicans are considering funding the initiative to drive conservative turnout. Half of them are top national targets in Democrats’ bid to retake the House next year.

Rob Stutzman, a GOP consultant who is working with the coalition behind the letter, said merely filing the repeal proposal was an “act of aggression.”

“Many of the members are sympathetic to the objectives of the House Republicans,” Stutzman said. But these groups, including the Associated General Contractors of California, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the League of California Cities, are prepared to spend $40 million to defend the tax hikes, which will fund construction projects that benefit their companies and communities.

That means a massive advertising blitz aimed at getting mostly liberal voters to the polls. A better approach for California Republicans, Stutzman said, would be to use the gas tax as an issue to beat up vulnerable Democrats in legislative races. A contentious initiative “would dilute what would otherwise be a pretty powerful issue for Republicans in the election next year,” Stutzman said.

Reps. Darrell Issa of Vista, Mimi Walters of Irvine and Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa, who are considered among the most vulnerable House Republicans in California because they all represent districts won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, did not respond to requests to discuss the letter.

Dave Gilliard, who is consulting on the tax repeal initiative, said the campaign has reached out to every Republican member of the state Legislature and California’s congressional delegation for their support, but would not confirm their involvement.

Though he also consults for Issa and Walters, Gilliard said he has “not had more than two or three minutes of discussion” with Issa, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, about funding the measure. Walters, he said, is “enthusiastic about it, she’s excited about us putting it on the ballot, and I hope she’ll be able to fundraise for us.”

Gilliard added that does he not believe the letter will have any impact on House Republicans’ decision to back the initiative.

“I think the Republican Party will be strongly in favor of this, regardless of what the other side does,” he said. “I don’t think threatening members of Congress is an approach that will work.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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