Bill Whalen

Gas tax repeal proves why California needs this election reform

Carl DeMaio, who is leading the Proposition 6 campaign to repeal a recent gas tax increase, discusses a proposed follow-up ballot measure in 2020 at a press conference in Sacramento on Sept. 25.
Carl DeMaio, who is leading the Proposition 6 campaign to repeal a recent gas tax increase, discusses a proposed follow-up ballot measure in 2020 at a press conference in Sacramento on Sept. 25. AP

Imagine my surprise when, while reading California’s official voter information guide, I discovered that Proposition 6, which seeks to repeal last year’s gasoline tax increase, doesn’t run on petrol.

According to the initiative’s ballot title, the measure “eliminates certain road repair and transportation funding.” Its ballot summary notes that Proposition 6 “repeals a 2017 transportation law’s taxes and fees designated for road repairs and public transportation.”

Only if you make it to the “arguments” section will you find the words “gas prices” (in caps, no less). Is this misleading? Not entirely.

Opinion

If Proposition 6 passes, you can say goodbye to those “paid for by SB 1” signs along California’s highways, roadways and local streets as construction projects grind to a halt. So, yes, road repairs would take a hit.

But the ballot description, as approved by Attorney General Xavier Becerra, favors those in Sacramento with the most to lose should the initiative passes – namely, his fellow Democratic lawmakers that muscled through the tax increase and the Democratic governor who signed it (so much for Jerry Brown’s pledge: “No new taxes unless you the people vote for them”).

bill whalen new.jpg
Bill Whalen

Personally, I can’t wait to see how the attorney general will summarize California’s high-speed rail project, should a repeal effort reach the 2020 ballot. If Becerra can come with 100 positive words about that money pit, other than good-paying union jobs, he has a future selling sand in the desert.

For decades, attorneys generals, both Democrats and Republicans, have played fast and loose with initiative titles and summaries.

A few years back, Becerra’s predecessor, Kamala Harris, took a pension reform initiative and fashioned it as an affront to “teachers, nurses, and peace officers.” You’ll note that she didn’t mention DMV clerks, Franchise Tax Board auditors and Caltrans workers lolling about while you’re stuck in traffic in the spotlight.

Going further back, a conservative Republican attorney general didn’t include the phrase “affirmative action” in Proposition 209 in 1996.

In 1994, Proposition 187’s title was a very sanitary “Illegal Aliens – Ineligibility for Public Services.” Proposition 184, the “three strikes” initiative, was a more benign “Increased Sentences – Repeat Offenders.” That was the conservative sell. A liberal attorney general would have gone with: “Harshly Imprisoning Pizza-Slice Thieves.”

There’s a simple fix – the same one applied to California’s redistricting process. Give the task to a nonpartisan panel. Rather than a very political attorney general, why not a committee of former judges entrusted to give initiatives fair and nonpolitical titles and summaries?

As for Proposition 6, don’t blame the voter guide if the initiative ultimately tanks. Both sides are on radio and television making it abundantly clear that either you like transportation projects, or dislike tax increases not approved by voters.

But passage may not be the definition of its success.

Statewide, support is at only 39 percent and opposition at 52 percent, according to a recent survey. But Proposition 6 might be better judged district by district. A half dozen Republican members of Congress helped get the measure on the ballot in hopes it will increase conservative turnout. That might explain why a handful of Democratic hopefuls trying to flip those seats have come out in support of the repeal – supporting Proposition 6 despite the wishes of their friends in Sacramento.

It’s a reminder that all politics is local. And, thanks to attorneys general, at times misleading.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

STAY IN THE DEBATE

The Sacramento Bee editorial board tackles the day’s biggest issues seven days a week, 365 days a year to keep you informed about California policy and politics.
We're a one-stop shop for timely, relevant viewpoints from elected officials and advocates on water, healthcare and housing and more.
Want to stay in the conversation? Support this forum for voices from across the state with a digital subscription to The Sacramento Bee.

  Comments