Republican lawmakers gathered in Orange County on Wednesday to drum up support for a bill that would suspend California’s gas tax for six months, saving drivers 51 cents on every gallon they pump.
“Hardworking families are having to cut back from other expenses just to fill up their gas tanks,” State Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, said during a press conference in Orange’s Yorba Park, held near a Mobil gas station.
“California residents deserve some financial relief,” Bates added. “A suspension of the gas tax will go a long way.”
Democratic leaders in the legislature so far have pushed back against efforts that would reduce the revenue the state gets from the gas tax. That money, the Democrats note, is key to paying for infrastructure improvements and other vital programs statewide.
But Assembly Bill 1638, introduced in January by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Sacramento, proposes using some of the state’s current budget surplus — which is estimated to be from $46.5 billion to $69.5 billion — to make up the $4.4 billion in revenue that would be lost during a six-month suspension of the gas tax.
“California can easily afford to reduce the burden of record high gas prices without taking money from road projects,” said Assemblywoman Laurie Davies, R-Laguna Niguel. “We don’t want to delay necessary maintenance, just help drivers afford to commute to work or bring their kids to school.”
The proposal comes as gas prices are soaring in California. As of Wednesday, March 2, the state average price is $4.87 a gallon according to AAA, or about a third higher than the national average of $3.66 a gallon. What’s more, gas prices — which are higher in California because of taxes and stricter environmental rules, among other things — are expected to increase even more as Russia’s war in Ukraine puts added pressure on already strained supplies.
The tax holiday also is being pitched during an election year, and the state GOP previously has used the gas tax as an issue to get rare wins against Democrats. In 2018, the party launched a successful recall of state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, by isolating him as one of 81 state legislators who voted in 2017 to raise the gas tax. (Newman won back the seat in 2020.)
Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, who is Republican Leader in the Assembly, organized Wednesday’s press conference, which featured three GOP candidates in Orange County who expect to face competitive races in November.
Dan Schnur, a politics professor at USC and a long-time political strategist in California, said the tax holiday idea could be a tricky one for Democrats facing competitive races. While the idea of paying for infrastructure and road improvements with a gas tax — employing thousands of people in the process — has been popular with Democratic voters, Schnur believes any vote against the tax holiday could be used as fodder for mailers and attack ads by GOP opponents.
Davies, the Assembly member from Laguna Niguel, agrees, saying the GOP “will hold Democrats accountable” on the issue.
When asked Wednesday about the GOP proposal, State Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, signaled he’s open to the idea. Min, who’s not up for election until 2024, said he’s also tired of the “sky high” cost of living in California.
“Any legislation that helps ease the burden on taxpayers should be on the table and will have my full consideration,” Min said. “During a year of record budget surpluses, the state should be returning tax dollars back to Californians.”
A spokesperson for Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, called the tax holiday idea “very interesting.” But the spokesperson also said Quirk-Silva’s office doesn’t yet have enough information to make an informed statement.
The gas tax holiday Republicans are proposing isn’t “radical,” Davies argued, noting that nationally even some Democrats are now calling for some version of relief.