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California Focus: Ballot misinformation on the ‘increase’

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One dropped word can make almost any written passage wholly misleading and confusing. Imagine if President Trump’s 2016 election slogan had lacked the word “great.” What would “Make America Again” have done for his campaign? Not much.

This year in California it’s the opposite. One missing word gives the current initiative to repeal last year’s gasoline tax increase much of its impetus and popular appeal (the measure had just over 50 percent support in the first public polls taken after it qualified for the November ballot as Proposition 6).

That word is “increase.” When Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox and other proponents like former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio take to their campaign rally microphones, they almost always shout “Repeal the gas tax.” Only rarely do they include that extra word “increase.”

In fact, Prop. 6 would not end the gas tax. No state initiative can do that by itself, since the current total tax of about 77 cents per gallon includes 18.4 cents in federal taxes, something state officials can’t touch. Instead, the current proposal would merely eliminate an increase of just over 12 cents per gallon imposed last year after a narrow legislative vote.

This, of course, is not the first time initiative backers have been misleading. Back in the late 1990s, when tobacco companies sought to rid themselves of local laws regulating smoking in restaurants and bars, they campaigned for “statewide smoking controls.” Any new statewide law would have overridden the local measures already in place by then in most California cities and counties, the real aim of Big Tobacco.

Don’t expect the failure of that pro-tobacco measure masquerading as an anti-smoking one – or the failures of most other misleading initiative campaigns over the decades – to deter today’s repeal campaign.

As of early July, backers of the repeal had raised more than $3.2 million, with more to come, some of it likely from the national Republican Party, which sees the initiative as a way to get GOP voters to the polls in a non-presidential election year when the party doesn’t even have a U.S. Senate candidate. The Republican aim is to preserve some congressional seats now in danger of flipping to the Democrats.

Some of the millions of dollars used to put the initiative on the ballot came from top national Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. They are almost certain to kick in again this fall.

But voters would be wise to examine some essential realities of the gas tax increase repeal that would eliminate almost $5 billion in highway and road maintenance funding the measure will produce if it goes forward for the next three years. The measure would also make it harder for legislators to raise gas taxes in the future by subjecting all hikes to popular vote approval. Under another proposition passed in June, no gas tax money can be used for anything but transportation.

What Cox, DeMaio and other repeal advocates don’t say is that for most motorists, the gas tax increase represents a pretty good investment. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, normally hypercritical of tax increases, reports that every dollar spent on road, highway and bridge improvements saves $5.20 in car repair costs, while improving road safety and fuel economy.

Plus, the non-partisan legislative analyst reported while the gas tax increase was under consideration that rough roads cost the average California driver about $700 a year for extra repairs.

The law threatened with repeal also will see electric vehicle owners start contributing to road maintenance funding for the first time in 2020, at $100 per year. That’s less than the average of $280 a year now paid by gasoline users, but it’s a start toward zero emission vehicles paying their fair share for using California roads.

The repeal campaign won’t tell voters any of this. And it remains to be seen whether tax increase supporters like Gov. Jerry Brown can effectively communicate this rather complex information to voters. So far, they’ve raised more than $11 million to facilitate that.

The bottom line question: Will California voters see through this latest attempt to mislead, an effort marked by the simple omission of one key word?

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.