By Tom Elias
There is no doubt that a 2003 car tax increase helped wreck Democrat Gray Davis’ career as governor of California. But a new batch of car taxes just passed by state legislators at the strong urging of Gov. Jerry Brown will not harm him or his legacy.
One reason for this is the timing: Davis was ousted in a recall election first proposed by this column less than one month after his reelection in 2002. He had almost three years remaining in his term by the time the recall came to a vote in October 2003.
Brown has less than two years left to serve; even if a recall movement arose, there could be no vote until sometime next year, when Brown would have only months left to serve. That calendar means there’s little point to this kind of exercise, so it won’t happen.
There are plenty of other differences, too. For one thing, corruption and not the car tax actually spurred the Davis recall, even if a lot of pundits with faulty memories now say otherwise. The column that began the recall drive (cited by national publications like the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor and by Ted Costa, the activist who filed the first recall papers) decried the fact turnout was lower by 1.5 million in the 2002 election when Davis won a second term than in the election that first made him governor in 1998.
“This happened,” the column said, “because of massive popular disgust with a political system that encouraged graft and corruption.” It went on to describe how beholden Davis was to his big donors, both labor unions and corporations. That prompted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first promise on entering the recall election: that he would take no money from special interests.
This, of course, was the first of many broken Schwarzenegger promises.
Then there’s the fact that Davis acted alone when he raised car registration taxes in 2003, a move that unquestionably added oomph to the already-active recall. He activated a provision in California law allowing vehicle registration fees that have previously been lowered to be raised again by the governor in times of budget deficits. The state consistently ran large budget deficits at that time.
Brown, meanwhile, got his car tax increases passed by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, even winning over one Republican. So Jon Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., was off the mark the other day when he likened the current scene to 2003.
In fact, road conditions are far worse now than 14 years ago. That’s partly because electric vehicles and highly efficient hybrids have dramatically cut use of gasoline and also the gas tax revenues used for road repair.
The new taxes will hit not only gasoline buyers, but also assess EVs that use no gas, which seems fair to most Californians because those cars and trucks use the same roads as all others, but until now have not paid a fair share for that privilege.
It’s also true that Davis was unpopular even before the recall focused attention on his negatives; his job approval ratings in various polls were in the low-40 percent range, far below Brown’s performance, now running in the high 50-percent range.
Sure, the well-documented corruption and sweetheart deals at state agencies like the Public Utilities and Energy commissions, both run entirely by Brown appointees, could provide reasons for voters to see Brown negatively. But polls suggest most voters have not cared much about any of that, at least not yet, and certainly not enough to seriously tar Brown’s reputation.
Then there’s the fact that most voters appear to believe major road repairs are vitally needed, while there was no such feeling in 2003.
So the scene today is vastly different from 14 years ago, and it’s serious overreach to suggest Brown might suffer a major backlash because of the new levies.
The bottom line: Brown’s reputation and legacy have not yet been tainted by the serious problems in some state agencies under his authority, so there’s no reason to believe new car taxes will harm him, either.