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Gas tax fight and memories of 1978

With the state government of California sitting on a budget surplus that exceeds $50 billion, Sacramento politicians can’t bring themselves to return a few dollars to middle-class taxpayers.

While the cost of consumer goods and services is rising rapidly, due mostly to feckless government policies, it is the cost of gasoline that truly sticks in the craw of average Californians. Conservatives in the Legislature, mostly Republicans, have accused the Democrats of intentionally running out the clock on providing gas tax relief before an automatic increase goes into effect on May 1st.

That accusation is well-founded.

Nearly a year ago, Republicans in the state Senate pushed for a “gas tax holiday,” including a full suspension on state gas tax collection for the current fiscal year.

The suspension could have easily been backfilled by the state’s overflowing general fund, which would protect transportation funding.

Later, they offered amendments formally requesting the suspension of the state gas tax and postponing the pending increase.

In the Assembly, who can forget the Democrats’ ambush of Assembly Bill 1638 by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, another gas tax suspension proposal?

Again, by refusing to even hear the bill the ruling political class is revealed as wholly disconnected to the concerns of average citizens.

That’s too bad because a one year suspension of the gas tax would have reduced the cost of fuel by 51.1 cents per gallon, providing instant tax relief.

It is also an elegantly simple solution that would have been easy for state bureaucrats to administer.

While the majority party in the legislature has slow-walked gas tax relief, Gov. Gavin Newsom at least put the issue on the table by introducing some gas price relief in his original January budget as well as his March State of the State speech.

But legislative leaders in both houses rejected his proposal, falsely claiming that transportation projects wouldn’t be fully funded.

Rather, they said they would prefer some sort of direct payments to taxpayers but weren’t clear on who would get the money.

Which brings us to today, exactly where we were a year ago except that now, both the price of gas as well as the gas tax are higher.

It is no surprise that a recent PPIC poll reveals that record percentages of voters believe they are overtaxed. What is surprising, however, is why a majority of our elected representatives in Sacramento are turning a blind eye to the problem and not taking any meaningful action.

If past is prologue, political foot-dragging on tax relief can be very dangerous.

In the 1970’s, the politicians refused to believe that taxpayers were serious about rising property taxes. Sure, a couple of yahoos named Jarvis and Gann put a strong tax measure on the ballot, Proposition 13, but, in their view, it went way too far and the voters would surely reject it, wouldn’t they?

But politicians back then, as now, underestimated the anger of the people.

By the time the legislature comprehended the size of the tsunami coming at them, it was too late.

Not even an alternative property tax initiative that was viewed as too little too late could save them. Prop. 13 passed by over 66%.

Yogi Berra said it’s déjà vu all over again. We have a strange feeling that inaction on tax relief could inflict serious damage on the ruling party come November. Just like it did in June of 1978.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

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