California Voters Recall State Senator Over Gas Tax Hike

Published July 31, 2018

In a recall election, California voters removed a state senator who voted to raise the state’s gas tax last year.

Sen. Josh Newman (D–Fullerton) lost his state Senate seat when 59.5 percent of those voting in his district, which includes parts of Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino counties, approved his recall on June 5. He had served half of his four-year term.

Newman was one of 81 legislators who voted last year to increase the state gas tax by 12 cents a gallon, boost the diesel fuel tax by 20 cents a gallon, and increase vehicle fees. Former Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang (R) was elected to replace Newman.

‘Voters Are Not Blind’

Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects for the National Association of Scholars and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says the successful recall effort indicates voters are tired of the Left’s efforts to demonize fossil fuels.

“The Left, realizing its failure to persuade everyday Americans it is a sin to use fossil fuels, has attempted to make fossil fuels more expensive through policies including gas taxes,” Peterson said. “But voters are not blind, and California’s recent recall election is a sign they reject efforts to artificially make basic energy sources more expensive.” 

‘Tax Doesn’t Make Sense’

Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Reason Foundation, says the success of the recall effort may signal a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot to repeal California’s 2017 gas tax increase could succeed.

“The recall campaign is an effective message and reinforces everything I’m hearing in California about how unpopular the gas tax hike is and how popular this repeal effort is likely to be,” Moore said. “If you go to places like San Francisco and the Bay Area, where car ownership is relatively low, no one cares about the gas tax, because there are other ways to get around, but in Los Angeles, not so much, because even Democrats in Los Angeles drive a lot.

“It also doesn’t help when consumers look around and consistently see they are paying $1.50 per gallon to $2 per gallon more than everyone else around the nation,” Moore said. “A 40 percent increase in our gas tax doesn’t make sense to anybody.”

William F. Shughart II, research director at the Independent Institute and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, says gas taxes hit people hard in the pocketbook.

“Most people standing at the pump will notice the price of a gallon of gas was higher than the last time they bought it in the days before the tax went into effect,” Shughart said. “I can understand why the taxpayers and voters were upset with a senator who decided to raise the tax.”

Revenues Diverted

The California legislature rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s original proposal in 2016 to increase the gas tax to help close a large deficit in the California government employees’ pension plan, so he proposed it a second time, saying the new revenue would go to filling in potholes and repairing bridges and roads, says Shughart.

“In every state, including California, legislatures routinely raid the highway trust fund,” said Shughart. “They pull money out of it to spend on other programs with a higher priority at the time than roads and bridges.

“In recent years, a lot of gas tax money has gone to fund public transportation, but the trouble with raiding the gas tax fund is it completely undermines the user fee justification for the tax in the first place,” Shughart said. “If you’re going to spend gas tax money on something other than roads and bridges, then the drivers who pay the tax are no longer paying directly for the public infrastructure they use.”

In addition, when gas tax revenues are diverted from road repair and construction, basic transportation infrastructure begins to fall apart, Shughart says.

“California and other states have increasingly diverted billions into public transportation or other items, while spending less on roads and bridges, which is why in many parts of the country the highway infrastructure is degrading,” Shughart said. “The money that’s supposed to be spent to repair existing highways and to build new ones is being spent by self-interested legislators on other things.”

California Dreaming

Shughart says California has adopted several problematic public policies in recent years in an attempt to remove internal combustion engines from the roads altogether.

“Politicians are building infrastructure to charge electric vehicles,” Shughart said. “In fact, in their dreams they think within the next 20 years there will no longer be any gas-powered vehicles on California’s roads. One of the problems, if this dream comes true and every vehicle on the road is electric-powered, is the amount of money going into the highway trust fund will fall to zero, so how do you maintain highways in an electric world where no one is buying gasoline?

“Another thing people forget about this dream of a carbon-free world where people only drive electric vehicles is the electricity charging those vehicles has to be generated somehow,” Shughart said. “In California, they have a very green power grid, probably greener than the rest of the nation, but on the East Coast and in many other parts of the country electric vehicles are charged by coal-fired plants or natural gas plants which generate electricity, so you can’t get rid of carbon dioxide emissions by replacing gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles with electric ones.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.