Central Valley Democrat Defends Gas-Tax ‘No’ Vote

California Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, bucked his party earlier this month by voting no on a large hike in gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees. (Photo courtesy Rudy Salas for Assembly)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – After opposing the now-passed multimillion dollar transportation bill, California Assemblyman Rudy Salas has achieved what few Democrats representing rural areas can claim: support from his Republican constituents.

“I never vote for Democrats but if there was one, Rudy would get my vote. Took a lot of guts to do the right thing for Californians, who are way overtaxed already,” Steven Perryman of Bakersfield wrote on Facebook.

Others on social media praised Salas for his honesty and willingness to stand up for his constituents against party pressure.

“As a Republican I want to say THANK YOU to Mr. Salas for supporting your constituents’ needs over Sacramento’s greeds,” Mark Thompson wrote on Facebook.

A native of Bakersfield, Salas represents the 32nd Assembly District encompassing Kings County and parts of Kern County. He was also sole Democrat to oppose Senate Bill 1 – the Road Recovery and Accountability Act – which hikes the gasoline tax by 12 cents a gallon and increases annual vehicle registration fees $25 to $175 depending on the vehicle’s value.

According to estimates from the League of California Cities, Bakersfield stands to get $9,566,171 over the first two years of the tax hike. Farther north, Fresno could see $13,132,713, while Los Angeles would get a whopping $101,712,748 – the most of any city in the state.

Overall, the bill is projected to bring in $827 million over the next two years for local street and road repairs.

The bill now sits on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, who is expected to sign it since he traversed the state trying to sell it to lawmakers’ constituents.

Though Democrats enjoy a supermajority in the Legislature, the bill was unpopular and Salas’ decision to vote against it almost killed it. It passed by a slim margin on April 6, the Legislature’s last vote before going on spring break.

When lawmakers returned on Monday, Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon announced Salas had been stripped of his seat as chairman of the Business and Professions Committee and placed on the Rules Committee.

The reassignment came as quite a blow to Salas. While Business and Professions is one of the most powerful committees in the Assembly – handling bills that affect businesses and thus attracting attention from power players and lobbyists – the Rules Committee oversees only the business of the Assembly itself.

In an op-ed piece, Salas defended his decision to buck party lines.

“The families I represent drive too far to jobs that pay too little. Imposing an additional gas and car tax on them would disproportionately affect some of the poorest and hardest working families in the state. This weighed heavily on my mind on April 6 as the California Legislature debated Senate Bill 1,” Salas wrote.

“But, despite being a huge part of California’s economy, we in the valley sometimes feel left behind.”

The “valley” Salas speaks of is the Central Valley, an 18,000 square-mile ribbon running through the heart of California bordered by the Coastal Range in the west, the Sierra in the east, the Cascades in the north and the Tehachapi Mountains in the south.

Roughly the size of Denmark, the Central Valley is known as the breadbasket of California and is one of the most agriculturally productive areas of the United States, growing more than half of all fruits, vegetables and nuts in country. Roughly 6.5 million people live in the valley, which is the state’s fastest growing region.

But although California’s nickname is “the Golden State,” many Central Valley residents see very little gold – or green. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, most counties in the Central Valley have double-digit unemployment rates, while the statewide rate is just 5 percent.

“We feel left behind when we see headlines that say California’s economy is strong and that we are out of the recession. When, in fact, in the valley families are still struggling to get back on their feet,” Salas said.

“We know that families in the valley make less and travel more than people in other areas of the state that have higher wages and access to subways, light-rail and mass-transit systems. I truly believe that I stood up for the single mom working two jobs to get her kids through school, the hard-working men and women who are trying to make ends meet to raise their families and for the seniors and the disabled who live on fixed incomes.”

Salas is not the only Democrat from a rural community to be slapped for refusing to toe the party line. Former state Sen. Dean Florez, also from Kern County, lost his own committee assignment after investigating a $95 million deal between California and software giant Oracle.

That a rural community elected a Democrat to the Legislature is something of a small miracle. Voters in rural areas tend to be more conservative than their urban neighbors. They are also more likely to own property, be self-employed, oppose gun control, and support resource extraction, making the Republican Party the more favorable option, James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, told Governing.com.

Nonetheless, Democrats in Salas’ district hold a 22.5-point advantage over Republicans in terms of voter registration, according to statistics from the California Secretary of State.

Salas was first voted into office in 2012, handily defeating three Republican opponents by earning 52.9 percent of the vote in the general election. As an incumbent, those numbers have only increased: last year, he secured 65 percent of the vote against Republican opponent Manuel Ramirez.

Democrats in the 32nd Assembly District may owe their success in part to the area’s Latino voters, who make up 68.8 percent of the population. Latinos traditionally tend to vote blue, as Democrats support key issues like immigration reform, civil rights and social programs for low-income families – issues close to many Latinos’ hearts.

Republicans attempting to court Latinos typically focus on the party’s social conservatism and anti-abortion platform, but the party’s harsh rhetoric on undocumented immigration and an undercurrent of racism tend to garner criticism from Latinos rather than support.

Though Democrats usually support taxation to fund social programs – and much-needed road repair – Salas said his campaign promise not to raise taxes without the vote of the people informed his decision to oppose SB 1.

“Because SB 1 imposes rather than asks Californians how and to what extent we should invest on our roads, I could not in ‘good conscience’ to my heart and to the families I represent vote for a life-altering measure that does not at least ask them to weigh in,” he said.

“I commend all the work the governor and my colleagues have done to address the transportation needs of our state. I wholeheartedly believe that we could have done better. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and that means putting the time and effort to create an infrastructure package that all Californians can be proud of.”