California neglected maintenance of its highway and road network for decades. But last year, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown finally enacted a stiff increase in gas taxes and automotive fees to catch up, even though polls indicated that most Californians didn’t want to pay more.
Despite its unpopularity, it was the right thing to do. But almost immediately, a campaign was launched by anti-tax conservatives and the state Republican Party to repeal the $5-plus billion-a-year package, resulting in Proposition 6 on the November ballot. The GOP hoped it would encourage its voters to cast ballots and help the party save a half-dozen Republican congressional seats considered to be vulnerable.
Last week, the Public Policy Institute of California released a new poll indicating that despite the previous opposition to the new taxes, the repeal measure is favored by just 39 percent of likely voters, while 52 percent are opposed.
So does that mean that Californians have changed their minds? Perhaps not.
The repeal proposal received what can only be described as a hostile official ballot title from Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office.
Instead of describing it as a repeal of gas taxes, the official title is “Eliminates certain road repair and transportation funding. Requires certain fuel taxes and vehicle fees to be approved by the electorate.”
PPIC’s survey team read that title as it polled nearly 1,000 Californians, deemed to be a cross-section of likely voters by party, ideology, ethnicity, geographic location and other factors.
Although Democrats were less likely than Republicans to vote for Proposition 6, the gap wasn’t as wide as one might have expected. The rather slanted title, which didn’t say it was a repeal, probably had something to do with it.
That theory is bolstered by responses to a more generic question. “When asked a more general question about repealing the recent increases, likely voters are divided (50 percent favor, 46 percent oppose),” PPIC said.
When Becerra released the title, repeal proponents sued, and a Superior Court judge declared that it was misleading. Judge Timothy Frawley ordered the opening passage rewritten to declare that the measure “repeals recently enacted gas and diesel taxes and vehicle registration fees.”
However, the state court of appeal overturned Frawley, saying the complete description, which included the taxes to be repealed, was accurate enough, and noting that state law gives the attorney general “considerable latitude” in drafting the official description.
It appears, therefore, that had respondents in the PPIC poll been given a fuller description of Proposition 6, rather than just the brief title, the results would have been much different.
Given that situation, it falls on proponents of Proposition 6 to make their case to voters. Last week, as the PPIC poll surfaced, the backers released their first television ad “to ensure that California voters know a yes vote on Proposition 6 repeals the gas tax.”
The ad describes the tax package as another burden on families struggling to pay their bills that politicians passed “to cover their budget deficit, not fix our roads.”
It could be an effective message, because the PPIC poll indicates that support is strongest among lower-income immigrant voters with children to support.
However, the opposition is a powerful coalition of business, labor unions and other interest groups. The coalition is likely to have much more money to drive home its point that Proposition 6 would deprive California motorists of much-needed roadway repairs.
That’s a very valid contention, even if it hinges on a very misleading ballot title.