Capitol Alert

Gas tax repeal lures California Democrats in key House races

Democratic congressional candidate Katie Porter surprised political watchers last week when she launched a cable television ad declaring she opposed higher gas taxes.

The controversial $52 billion tax and fee increase was the result of a signature effort by Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat, to pay for the largest road funding plan in California in more than a quarter century. Most Democratic state lawmakers supported the effort.

But Porter is not the only Democrat in a hotly contested House race taking a public stand against the measure as it faces an expensive repeal campaign.

“The gas tax is not the way to fix (California’s infrastructure) problems,” Josh Harder wrote in an Aug. 17 Turlock Journal op-ed, arguing that funding for infrastructure improvements, which the tax raises money for, ought to come from the federal government. The 31-year-old Democrat is challenging Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in a Central Valley district that includes Modesto, Turlock and Tracy.

In a statement provided to McClatchy, Harder was even more explicit: “I support Proposition 6,” he said, referring to the ballot initiative that would reverse California’s 12 cent gas tax increase.

“We all agree that we need to fix our roads and bridges, especially here in the Valley, but it should be through a thoughtful, cost-effective national plan,” he said, “not through another tax we can’t afford.” Harder has also been sending out campaign fundraising e-mails emphasizing the issue.

Democratic candidates’ efforts to distance themselves from the tax increase are a sign of the measure’s unpopularity with voters, particularly in regions with lots of commuters. But it also shows how Democrats running in swing districts can potentially neutralize the issue, while demonstrating their independence from the party bigwigs in Sacramento.

Harder has been the most explicit in his support of the gas tax repeal initiative, which puts Denham in a difficult position. The fourth-term congressman has deep ties with the construction and transportation industries, who support the gas tax increase and the road projects it is funding. Denham has received more funds than any other congressman from the air transport, airlines, trucking and railroad sectors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And he is vying to be chairman of the influential House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where infrastructure funding is a major issue.

Denham is also one of a few House Republicans from California who has not spoken out nor donated money to support the gas tax repeal, a fact that is likely tied to his relationships. But in a statement provided to McClatchy, Denham said that he did, in fact, support Proposition 6. “ I am committed to lowering taxes on hard working American families,” Denham said. “My opponent sides with Nancy Pelosi in support of raising taxes on middle class families and small businesses.”

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Porter’s opponent, Orange County Republican Rep. Mimi Walters, is one of the repeal effort’s most vocal champions and donating more than $300,000 to the repeal effort.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC aligned with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, began airing a television ad in mid-August that claimed Porterrefuses to oppose Sacramento’s gas tax increase even though California is paying the highest gas prices in America.” The group is also running an ad against another Democratic congressional candidate, Katie Hill, saying she is “backed by Sacramento liberals who raised the gas tax.” Hill is running against Republican Rep. Steve Knight in Los Angeles County.

In response, Porter cut her own ad declaring that was a “straight-up lie.”

A third Democrat, Jessica Morse, also criticized the gas tax increase in a statement, calling it “double taxation” and arguing, like Harder, that Congress needed to provide more infrastructure funding.

“If the people of 4th District had a Representative who fought to address the needs of this community, like alleviating traffic at the 80-65 interchange and fixing the roads our businesses rely upon, there would be no increase to the gas tax,” said Morse, who is running against Republican Rep. Tom McClintock in a district that is a longer shot for Democrats.

Morse did not say she supported repealing the tax, however.

Ultimately, state tax and budget decisions are not up to members of Congress, and a number of political operatives McClatchy spoke with were not convinced the issue would swing the 2018 House races one way or another. But it certainly won’t help those fighting to preserve the law, including Brown, the construction industry and labor groups.

“Shame on any politician who wants to play politics with public safety,” State Building and Construction Trades Council of California President Robbie Hunter said. “Eliminating funding for 6,500 local projects that are already underway to repair our transportation infrastructure is beyond reckless, and voters will hold those politicians accountable who gamble with our safety.”

Hunter and others argue the money raised by the tax is needed to address a $130 billion backlog in state infrastructure repairs and maintenance. That’s also the argument made by Democratic candidates who say they oppose Proposition 6, including Gil Cisneros and Mike Levin, who are running for open seats in Southern California. Both Cisneros and Levin said in statements that repealing the gas tax increase would hurt local projects already under way, like improvements to State Route 57 and efforts to reduce congestion on the I-5 corridor.

Robert Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, told McClatchy the tax’s defenders face “an uphill climb” to convince voters that it’s worth the extra cost at the pump. Polling conducted in recent months shows the repeal effort enjoyed a double digit edge among voters.

Many were still undecided, however, and supporters of the tax are building up a substantial cash advantage as the campaign gears up for the general election.

Those seeking repeal, meanwhile, aren’t exactly welcoming these professed Democratic allies.

“Not only are they not helping repeal to the gas tax but now they are lying to their constituents,” said Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego City Councilman who is leading the “Yes on 6” campaign. DeMaio noted that the group reached out to campaigns across the state, asking for their support in organizing rallies, joining press conferences, raising money and promoting their talking points.

The “Yes on 6” web site lists “Gas Tax Repeal Heroes” who have done so — an all-Republican roster of politicians that includes gubernatorial candidate John Cox, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, and vulnerable Republican Reps. Walters, David Valadao of Hanford and Steve Knight of Palmdale.

But DeMaio said Democrats running for Congress, including Porter and Harder, “have flatly refused or not responded whatsoever” to his requests.

State Republicans clearly believe the gas tax is one of their strongest campaign talking points in a state where the cost of living is top of mind for many voters. They’re also emboldened by the wide margin with which Southern California voters recalled former Sen. Josh Newman in June, a campaign centered on Newman’s vote for the gas tax increase.

Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle said his caucus is primarily targeting three seats that flipped to Democrats in 2016 and plans to hit those lawmakers on their gas tax votes as part of a broader message about how unaffordable it is to live in California.

“We know what the people are frustrated about,” Dahle said. “The voters are still impacted by all these things.”

It’s unlikely the gas tax will be the focal point of congressional campaigns the way it was for Newman’s recall, however. While Newman was a deciding vote for the legislation that increased the tax, members of Congress “don’t have anything to do with this,” noted Shrum.

And while Republicans hoped the issue will motivate their base to show up at the polls in an election year where Democrats have a decided edge in voter enthusiasm. The issue doesn’t cut neatly along partisan lines, however. Hispanics, a traditional Democratic constituency, were strongly against the gas tax increase in polling conducted by USC and the Los Angeles Times.

That helps explain why Democrats like Harder and Porter have decided to come out in opposition to the policy, as well. “The gas tax is in trouble,” Shrum said. “And it’s in even deeper trouble in [those] districts.”

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