After Recall of California Lawmaker, Will the Gas Tax Be Next?

California State Rep. Josh Newman speaks from the Senate floor on June 11 after he was recalled by voters in his district.

FULLERTON, Calif. (CN) – More than a week after Election Day in California the campaign signs have come down in the city of Fullerton, where voters recalled their state representative over his support of a 12-cent-per-gallon gas tax.

Freshman state Senator Josh Newman, a Democrat, was recalled June 5 by a margin of about 2,300 votes, a number nearly identical to the margin of victory he received in 2016, when he defeated state Rep. Ling Ling Chang to succeed the term-limited Republican incumbent.

In a district encompassing parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, there was no escaping the gas tax debate in the run-up to the vote.

Signs reading simply “Yes On Recall” and “No On Recall” crowded busy street corners, and advertisements, largely against Newman and for Ling Ling Chang, who won the simultaneous election to replace him, seemed to be just about everywhere else.

For Newman it all amounted to having the wrong kind of name recognition.

Mary Linell, of Orange County, said she barely knew who Newman was when the campaign began. By the time election day arrived, however, she felt she was all too familiar with him.

“I just know that he wanted to raise our taxes,” Linell said the other day at the Fullerton Community Center during a senior lunch and concert.

“The (campaign) signs were everywhere,” she added.

Vicki Colbin, also at the senior lunch, was against the recall and felt Newman was unfairly targeted because he is a Democrat.

She said she’d followed Newman’s career since his first campaign, and first met him during a campaign stop at a local university two years ago, when her granddaughter worked on his campaign.

“He was blamed for the gas tax and it just seems like bad politics,” Colbin said.

Like Colbin, Ken George, a retired Navy veteran living in Orange County, was also disturbed by the recall effort, which he called a kneejerk reaction to the gas tax.

He said the single-issue race distorted Newman’s record and failed to reflect his longtime support for veterans and veteran services.

But others couldn’t have been happier with the outcome.

Fullerton-based attorney Joshua Ramirez, of OC Edler Law, said Newman’s recall will give Orange County Republicans a voice in their government again.

Of the gas tax, Ramirez said, “It’s mind boggling that we’re paying additional taxes for something that we’re already paying taxes for.”

“There was no accountability with the gas tax,” he continued. “We have no idea where the money is going. We don’t know if it’s being spent on a bullet train. We just have no idea what’s going on, because we were never asked.”

Fullerton resident Max Montana said Newman’s recall was both an example of people speaking up for what they believe it, and also a rebuke to a politician who failed to listen to them.

“We already have a state tax on gasoline. We’re being over taxed in California and we never had a chance to speak on this so-called tax,” Montana said.

Now that Newman has fallen, the organizers who pushed for his recall are intent on repealing the gas tax. They gathered signatures in support of that repeal, during the winter and spring and are currently awaiting verification of those signatures by the California Secretary of State’s Office.

Senate Bill 1, which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law on April 28, 2017, and went into effect in January, raised fuel and vehicle fees for Californians, and instituted the 12-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline.

It is expected to raise $5.24 billion per year to pay for repairs and upgrades to local roads and highways, and support public transit and inter-city rail.

Along with that, the state Department of Transportation has said, $1 billion of the new revenue will fund bicycle and pedestrian projects across California.

But as hard as lawmakers tried to sell the improvements, they just haven’t been able to raise widespread support for it.

A May 2018 poll by the Bill Lane Center for the American West found that a majority of registered voters in the state favor repealing the gas tax.

The irony of Newman becoming the focus of voter anger is that he was not the key vote securing its passage. Newman joined 26 other lawmakers in the state Senate who voted yes for SB1 out of 40 lawmakers. Governor Brown has dismissed the recall as nothing more than a tactic by Republicans to take back a state senate seat.

For his part, Newman took to the state Senate floor after the recall to denounce the lack of support he found from colleagues.

“It saddens me, colleagues, that, despite all your nice sotto voce words, not a single one of you had the integrity, the decency, or the courage to stand up and say ‘This is wrong,'” Newman said.  “This is an abuse of the recall process.  We’re better than this.  This should not happen.  I won’t let this happen.”

Newman did admit the process of drafting SB1 could have gone better and had more public input, but “even in retrospect,” he said, “I have no regrets on that vote.”

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, said the fate of the gas tax will not depend on how supporters and opponents of the measure frame the issue.

“If the repeal supporters can successfully argue that tax payers’ money can be better spent on other programs, then it will pass,” Jeffe said. “But if the other side can argue that if this gas tax doesn’t stay then this crumbling bridge in your district won’t get repaired or these roads won’t get fixed, then the repeal would be defeated.”

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