The most consequential matter in the November election is not a multimillion-dollar campaign for governor, senator, or other statewide office — it’s a Republican-sponsored initiative to cut the price of gas by 12 cents.
Proposition 6, one of 12 measures on the ballot, would repeal 2017 Democratic legislation increasing the state excise tax on auto fuel by 12 cents a gallon, earmarking it over 10 years for $52 billion of highway construction and repairs.
At first glance, it’s a traditional California tax-and-spend debate, with the GOP portraying themselves as the savior of the economically overburdened consumer and the Dems cast as greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number communitarians.
With Prop. 6, however, Republicans have a broader, not-so-hidden agenda than the price of gas in California, and the voters’ decision will not only help shape the state’s future political landscape but also go a long way in determining whether the Party of Trump maintains absolute power in Washington.
Here are three key, backstory elements of the Prop. 6 campaign:
Gentlemen of the House.
National Republicans see Prop. 6 as a get-out-the-vote election operation. Party leaders, led by outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader (and wannabe speaker) Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, and Trump henchman Rep. Devin Nunes, kicked in more than $1 million to qualify Prop. 6. They hope to boost turnout among their voters to help protect a half dozen endangered California GOP incumbents targeted in the Dems’ Hail Mary bid to win the House and a shred of federal power.
The way back.
California Republicans, led by John Cox, the underdog challenger to Gavin Newsom for governor, view Prop. 6 as a long-shot hope to stage a stunning upset that wobbles Democratic hegemony and helps the GOP rally from its current ignominy. “My hope is that the gas-tax repeal will provide a template on how the GOP can be relevant again in California,” Carl DeMaio, the radio yakker and former San Diego councilmember who leads the repeal campaign, told Politico. “The first milestone is making yourself relevant — and putting up ballot measures the Democrats support.” DeMaio and fellow travelers are still exulting over their first political scalp: last month’s gas-tax-related recall of State Senator Josh Newman, a first-term Orange County Democrat.
What would Jerry do?
The Prop. 6 political drama will be heightened by the high-profile role of outgoing Governor Jerry Brown, who led the battle to pass the tax-for-infrastructure bill, which he views as an important part of his legacy. Brown has $14 million in his personal campaign account, which he could use against Prop. 6, but says it likely won’t be necessary because of the broad, business-labor coalition that supports public-works spending as necessary to the economy; they’ve already raised more than $12 million, one-third of it in the two weeks since the initiative qualified.
Defining the issue.
Besides money for advertising, the Prop. 6 campaign will turn on who wins the fight to frame the fundamental argument:
To Republicans, it is nothing more than a taxes-are-too-high issue.
They will focus on pay-at-the-pump pain, noting that California’s gas prices ($3.67 per gallon in Santa Barbara in a recent measure) are far higher than average national prices (about $2.85 for the same period) and that state gas taxes are seventh highest in the nation, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.
Democrats will argue Prop. 6 is about good public policy and partisan politics.
They will focus on maddening traffic and district-by-district construction projects. S.B. Councilmember Gregg Hart, deputy executive director of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, for example notes that California “will be forced to revisit all previous funding decisions,” including $400 million awarded for the Highway 101 widening project, if Prop. 6 passes.
“This has nothing to do with taxes,” Governor Brown said last week, “This is engineered by the Republican congressional delegation to prop up their vulnerable Republicans in Orange County and the Central Valley. They don’t give a damn about the roads in California.”