Published May 1, 2018 – Visalia Times-DeltaPhotos: Luis Hernandez & Ron Holman

The controversial California gas tax may be facing voters soon. Signatures were recently collected in hopes that a repeal would come in November.

While some have praised the 12-cent gas tax, which is already flooding millions into Tulare County road projects, others don’t see the benefit of paying more at the pump.

On Tuesday, Visalia Mayor Warren Gubler and Tulare businessman Paul Olson dropped off 16,000 petition signatures to repeal the gas tax — SB 1. The signatures were gathered over the last several weeks and will be verified by Tulare County elections officials.

There are 160,609 registered voters in Tulare County.

“I am against the gas and car tax hikes and personally signed the petition to repeal it,” Gubler said Tuesday. “This regressive tax, a form of economic discrimination, is hurting local family budgets and has resulted in Californians paying the highest gas prices in the continental United States.”

Alaska and Hawaii are typically priced higher than California.

Local residents are feeling the effects of the tax, he added.

“Our Valley can’t afford it,” said Gubler, who is running for Assembly District 26. “The state was collecting gas taxes prior to SB 1 being enacted. The state has not done a good job on reporting on the collection from the previous taxes.”

As the race for the state seat heats up, candidates are speaking out.

Incumbent Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) and Jack Lavers, a Kern County rancher, are also critical of SB 1.

“SB1 is a 5.2 billion tax on already overtaxed Californians. California spends three times more per mile than the national average to pave our roads,” Lavers said. “Our result is having the 48th worst roads in the nation.”

Lavers continued: “Around $12 a tank goes to pay state and federal taxes and we have nothing to show for it.”

Mathis, who didn’t support the gas tax when lawmakers approved it in 2017, said there are other ways to finance road improvements.

“SB 1 is not the best option to fix roads for Californians,” he said. “It is an overreach by the government that hits families the hardest. With the diesel tax, it hurts agricultural communities even more.”

In addition to the 12-cent gas hike, 20 cents was added to diesel.

While the gas tax has opponents, money from the California Road Repair and Accountability Act is trickling into Tulare County, where projects have already started.

Tulare began road projects earlier this year.

“I see the positive impact SB 1 is having on fixing infrastructure,” said Tulare Councilman Jose Sigala, who’s also running for the Assembly District 26 seat. “The city of Tulare has been told of funds and we have identified streets. We are grateful for funds dedicated to fixing roads.”

In Visalia, it’s much the same. Council members, including Gubler, recently took action and selected six street improvement projects using SB 1 money.

In April, Caltrans announced its road maintenance wish list — valued at an estimated $18 billion, a $7 billion increase because of SB 1.

“In prior years, we had to postpone projects due to lack of funds but now we are accelerating those projects that are improving our roads, bridges, drainage systems and reducing congestion,” said Laurie Berman, Caltrans director. “We have a long list of projects and road work that needs to get done, and SB 1 funds allow us to get it done benefiting communities across the state.”

Candidates in the Assembly race also questioned the timing of payouts. Some said it’s politically motivated to show voters that money will be used for what the tax is supposed to go toward.

Some of the money has been promised to counties but has not yet been sent.

“Issuing funding for new projects before the funding is a sure thing is a California specialty and should never happen,” Lavers said.

Mathis called out the governor and Caltrans.

“The timing of fund distribution is incredibly strategic. There are many interest groups who are very concerned about the repeal efforts,” he said. “As such, (Gov. Jerry Brown) and Caltrans have put an urgency on the distribution of funds to increase the appearance of road repair. The only way to win favorability of the tax is to bring up the presence of the orange construction cones.”

A successful repeal of the gas tax may put state officials in an awkward financial position, Mathis said.

“Assuming that the repeal efforts are successful, state agencies should indeed be worried about a lack of funding,” he said.

Judging by the number of signatures gathered, SB 1 may be in trouble.

Olson, who helped deliver the signatures, said there were 950,000 signatures collected statewide. There must be a minimum of 585,000 verified signatures for an SB 1 repeal to be placed on the November ballot.

“The voters have spoken,” Olson said. “They are outraged by the increase.”

While just under one million signatures were gathered statewide, there are more than 18 million registered voters in California.

Local projects

Visalia and Tulare have identified street construction projects where SB 1 money will be used.

Visalia:

  • Walnut Avenue from Central to Court.
  • Murray Avenue from Giddings to Encina.
  • Center venue from Encina to Burke.
  • Demaree Street from Houston to Ferguson.
  • Main Street from Conyer to Hall.

Tulare:

  • Cross Avenue from Tulare to West.
  • Maple Avenue from Sacramento to E.
  • Cartmill Avenue from Cartmill and Highway 99 interchange to De La Vina.
  • Cherry Street from Tulare to Merritt; Bash Alley from Auburn to Cherry; Lyndale Drive from Cherry to Blackstone.
  • Sonora Avenue from West to E.