Capitol Alert

California’s gas tax increase is here to stay

California voters on Tuesday rejected a measure to undo recent increases to state fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, protecting billions of dollars in funding for road maintenance and other transportation projects.

Proposition 6 trailed 55 percent to 45 percent as California election officials reported early returns on Tuesday night. The measure’s proponent, Carl DeMaio, accepted defeat around 10 p.m.

Backed by the California Republican Party, which hoped it would boost Republican prospects in a tough election cycle, Proposition 6 faced well-funded opponents.

A coalition of business groups and construction industry unions raised more than $40 million to defeat the measure and flooded television airwaves in the final month of the election with advertisements, including one starring Gov. Jerry Brown that warned of dire consequences if it passed. Proponents raised just a tenth of that amount.

Proposition 6 would have required that any new transportation fuel taxes or road usage fees in California be approved by a majority vote of the public. Because it was retroactive to the beginning of 2017, it would have repealed a funding proposal passed last year by the Legislature to pay for road maintenance and public transit projects.

Supported by Brown and mainly Democratic lawmakers, the plan raised the excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon and the excise tax on diesel by 20 cents per gallon, and tripled the sales tax on diesel.

It also created a new “transportation improvement fee” for vehicle registration, ranging from $25 to $175 depending on its value, and a $100 “road improvement fee” for electric cars. All of those charges rise with inflation in the years ahead.

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The new taxes and fees are expected to generate an average of more than $5 billion annually over the next decade. Most of that is slated for road rehabilitation and maintenance — half for state highways, half for city and county streets — with an ambitious goal of having at least 98 percent of highway pavement in good or fair condition by 2027. About a quarter of the money is designated for other purposes, such as upgrading bus and light-rail systems and reducing traffic on some of the most heavily-congested travel corridors.

Republicans objected to the funding scheme, arguing that there is already enough money available in the state budget for road repairs without charging consumers more at the pump.

An aggressive campaign for Proposition 6 played on doubts about whether the government had spent existing gas taxes properly. Television commercials made an emotional appeal to voters that the fee increases were simply too much for Californians to bear.

But proponents said they were hamstrung by a ballot title that emphasized how the measure would eliminate billions of dollars in transportation funding. The campaign tried to “correct” that description with a mailer that resembled a message from state election officials. Last week, supporters threatened to recall Attorney General Xavier Becerra over the title.

DeMaio accused Democratic officials of “issuing a false and misleading title” to deceive a majority of residents who support the idea of repealing gas tax increases.

“The politicians thought by stealing an election, we would just go away,” he said. “But there’s a day after the election. Gas is going to continue to get more expensive, and our movement will grow.”

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