PHOENIX – A pair of ballot initiatives targeting the repeal of California’s recently-enacted gas tax increase would be disruptive to local issuers who have already begun putting the increased funds to work.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation announced in late October that it is throwing its support behind a ballot initiative filed with the attorney general’s office in September that would amend California’s constitution to repeal the gas tax increase approved in April and require a popular vote for any future gas tax increases.

Another initiative, filed in July and backed by Republican Assemblyman and gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen, would simply repeal the law. That law, SB 1, was a long political struggle supported by the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities, both of which are opposed to the ballot measures.

A bus drives past potholes and broken asphalt on West 1st Street in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011.
A crumbling street in Los Angeles. Two efforts are gathering steam to repeal recently enacted funding to repair roads around California. Bloomberg News

SB 1, which took effect Nov.1, includes a 12-cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline excise tax with an index for inflation.

It is expected to generate some $52 billion over ten years, split evenly between the state and localities. Proponents of the repeal measures are framing the increase as an undue burden on an already overtaxed populace.

“The latest increase in gas and car taxes is part of state government’s ongoing war against working people and middle-class taxpayers that will cost $600 a year for an average California family,” Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation president Jon Coupal said in a release. “The Sacramento politicians have seized on every opportunity to divert gas tax revenues from their intended purpose, fixing roads. As the roads predictably deteriorate, they plead poverty and justify digging deeper into taxpayers’ pockets.”

Opponents of the gas tax increase are also citing polling which appears to show that the increased taxes are unpopular and that a majority of voters support repeal.

A University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll released last week showed that about 54% of registered voters support chucking the increased taxes and fees, some of which are phased in over time under SB1. Prior to that, a UC Berkeley poll in June showed that only 35% of voters read a summary of the new law supported it.

But those who supported and continue to support the tax increase have their own polling that suggests a repeal effort is unlikely to succeed. In October, pollster Adam Probolsky of Probolsky Research found that 54% of respondents did not support Allen’s repeal measure, even under the court-approved title that the measure’s backers preferred after suing to change the name originally given it by the attorney general’s office.

That same month, the Fix Our Roads Coalition which includes CSAC, the League of Cities and other stakeholders, commissioned a poll by Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen. That poll found that a plain language reading of the constitutional amendment repeal had narrow support at 44% to 42% against, but after subjecting respondents to a “simulated campaign” support for the repeal dropped to 34%.

“California is making a historical investment in its infrastructure, which will have a substantial impact on our residents, industries and visitors, said League of Cities spokesperson Eva Spiegel. “With SB 1 funding, cities and counties have identified shovel-ready projects that will fix local streets, roads and seismically retrofit bridges, reduce traffic and improve mass transit.”

In order to be eligible for funding under SB 1, localities were required to put together lists of projects and plan how they would use the new revenues, so cities and counties are already beginning to make use of the new taxes.

“Every city (482) and county (58) are being allocated SB 1 funds, which is doubling the amount of state funding to local transportation infrastructure,” Spiegel said. “Our local governments are already starting projects. The effort to repeal SB 1 and roll back transportation funding will detrimental to economic growth in California, to jobs and on drivers’ quality of life.”

To that point, Sacramento County announced earlier this week that it had received $7.3 million from the state to fund two dozen maintenance, road and bridge rehabilitation, safety and complete street projects throughout its unincorporated area. The county expects to receive an average of more than $24 million per year over the next 10 years for future projects.

“With the SB 1 funds, SACDOT expects to take a big bite out of the county’s $450 million backlog of roadway maintenance and rehabilitation needs, and a $300 million backlog of pedestrian, bicycle and disability access improvements,” the county said in a release.

Chris Lee, a legislative analyst for housing, land use and transportation at the California State Association of Counties, said that work will continue on the projects identified regardless of the fate of the ballot measures since neither would be eligible to go before voters until a year from now.

Lee said voters will respond differently to opinion polls based on the way the questions are phrased, and predicted that SB 1’s provisions for transparency in spending would resonate with the public. Projects are listed online and anyone can see how money is being used.

“SB 1 has really put a huge premium on transparency and accountability,” said Lee. “I think that’s going to be powerful.”

Neither initiative has yet qualified for the ballot. Constitutional amendments require 585,407 valid voter signatures to qualify, while the straight repeal effort requires 365,880.

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Kyle Glazier

Kyle Glazier

Kyle Glazier is a reporter covering market trends, infrastructure, and the Far West region for The Bond Buyer.