June 12, 2018

June 12, 2018

California Republicans have just enough understanding of basic numbers—such as, percentage of registered California voters who are Democrats, 45; percentage of registered California voters who are Republicans, 25—to know they’re not about to win any statewide races this November. But in the wake of last week’s primary elections, in which one Democratic Orange County state senator was recalled after Republicans waged a campaign against him for voting for a gas tax increase during the most recent legislative session, they think they’ve found the formula to boosting their prospects in congressional and other races this November: Run against the gas tax increase.

The increase, strongly backed by Governor Jerry Brown and the required two-thirds of the legislature, would make $5 billion available each year for repairing and updating the state’s rickety infrastructure: roads and bridges, as well as building new intra- and intercity rail lines. It’s backed by both business and labor and by various enviros. Republicans look at this and remember the tax-slashing Proposition 13, which the state’s business, labor, and political establishments opposed 40 years ago. New Republican gubernatorial nominee John Cox, who would stand a better chance this November if he ran as a Trotskyist, has vowed to campaign largely on repealing the gas tax increase.

Can the Democrats overcome this? Are Republicans’ hopes well-founded? There are two recent precedents for Democrats prevailing over similar challenges. In 2008, promoted by then-LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LA County voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase for the next several years to fund the construction of a countywide rail system and a better bus system. Eight years later, they re-upped that commitment, making the sales tax increase permanent. 

Getting LA County—which is home to roughly a quarter of the state’s population—to "yes" required the campaign’s advocates, including Villaraigosa and a coalition called Move LA, to make clear to voters what specific rail and road construction would take place where, with what tangible benefits. It worked. Both the 2008 and the 2016 votes required a two-thirds majority to pass, and pass they did.

So California Democrats have two choices before them as they go into the November campaign. Do they refuse to defend the gas tax hike and let the Republicans make hay, or do they do what Villaraigosa, the LA establishment, and the LA left did when confronted with the opposition to the sales tax hike: Make a case for what badly needed improvements those additional revenues would create. To do that, they have to specify what roads will be improved, what rail lines built—that sort of thing. A debate on taxes that focuses only on the tax and not on what it enables is always one in which the tax will be voted down.

To be sure, the LA experience is hardly an exact parallel of the current situation. The sales tax came in smaller increments and was less visible, though for all I know it took more money from the average Californian than the higher tax at the pump does. And LA is more liberal, and home to a smaller share of Republicans, than the state at large.

But Californians in every part of the state know how bad their roads are and how hard it is to get around town. There’s a case to be made that can largely nullify the Republicans’ attacks. Democrats—and most particularly, Jerry Brown—need to realize that the only defense for their tax hike is an offense that spells out what it will accomplish.