The Bill for the Ballot Battle Over California Gas Tax Might Reach $75 Million

Supporters of the massive road repairs the higher California gas tax is financing won’t idly stand by and let Republicans repeal it at the ballot box. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The not-so-secret weapon of California Republicans for boosting conservative turnout and saving vulnerable U.S. House members this November is a ballot initiative that would repeal a large gas tax increase the Democratic-controlled state legislature enacted last year. Indeed, the state GOP and several individual Republican campaigns spent most of the money that got the repeal certified for the general election ballot.

The calculation, of course, is that hundreds of thousands of conservatives who might not otherwise have bothered to cast ballots in this Democratic-dominated state will drive their gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks to the polls (or more likely, to the post office to drop off mail ballots) to smite the Tax Man and his allies, the suburb-hating NorCal hippies. There was even a bit of a test case in the June 5 primary, when Orange County voters recalled a Democratic legislator who voted for the gas tax increase.

But as one can tell from the frantic road repairs under way all over the state right now (there’s close to a decade of backlogged projects thanks to the chronic California budget shortfalls that finally ended thanks to a combination of a strong economy and Democratic control of the legislature), there are a lot of voters, and a lot of pro-construction interests (including the local governments who are sharing in the revenues), that are benefiting from the gas tax increase. These benefits will not be given up without a vigorous and expensive fight.

And so, the battle over Proposition 6 (as it has now been numbered) is going to become a very big deal between now and November, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

“Unions and the highway construction industry have their own stake here, given the $50-plus billion in road building and repair costs, and they are not about to roll over,” said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University. He said a reasonable expectation is that $50 million to $75 million will be raised for the Nov. 6 election “given the self-interest on both sides and the amount raised to date.”

And actually, the anti-repeal forces have a head start, having banked nearly $12 million as opposed to a little over $3 million from the pro-Prop. 6 camp. Inevitably, the contending forces will line up with the two major political parties:

“I think the building trades and general contractors have a huge amount at stake, and will spend millions,” said Democratic political strategist Garry South, who noted that Gov. Jerry Brown, a major proponent of the gas tax, has $14 million he could spend on the issue stored in his own campaign accounts.

On the other side, congressional Republicans are expected to write big checks, as they did for the campaign to qualify the initiative, in hopes of spurring more conservative voter turnout to affect congressional races also on the November ballot. 

These expenditures can be rationalized as representing an alternative GOTV (Get Out the Vote) technique. But ultimately money spent on slugging it out over Prop. 6 will be money that will not be available for individual campaigns down the stretch. If Prop. 6 fails, this battle will probably be quickly forgotten. If it passes, though, there will be a lot of earth-movers suddenly falling silent, their harsh noises fading with the hopes of giving Californians a smooth ride.

The $75 Million Ballot Fight Over California’s Gas Tax