How Would California's Prop 6 Gas Tax Repeal Impact Climate Change?
Proposition 6, the measure to repeal last year's increase to the state gas tax, could make it tougher for California to meet its goals of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, according to economists and environmental groups.
Most of the money from the gas tax and vehicle fee increase is going to road and highway upgrades — but a sizable portion is also going to improvements and expansions of public transit. Cars and trucks are the biggest contributors to climate change, both in San Diego and in California, and state and local climate goals depend on more people using transit, as well as biking and walking, to get around.
"The gas tax has already brought millions and millions of dollars into the San Diego region to improve transit and to improve pedestrian and bike safety," said Sophie Wolfram, director of programs for the local nonprofit Climate Action Campaign. "When that funding is cut, it just makes it that much more difficult for us to meet our state and local climate targets."
Two weeks ago, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned the world could face disastrous consequences, including food shortages, more extreme weather events and the displacement of millions of people, by 2040 unless governments ramp up efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The report says the fastest and most effective approach would be for governments to heavily tax carbon emissions.
California does not have a carbon tax but does levy fees on polluting industries through its cap-and-trade system. And while the gas tax was not created with climate change in mind, it does put a modest price on carbon emissions from cars and trucks.
Conservative talk radio host Carl DeMaio, who is leading the "Yes on 6" campaign, said the state has enough money for transportation infrastructure already, and that Prop 6 is not about climate change.
"If the politicians want to put a climate change tax on the ballot, then be honest about it," DeMaio said after a campaign rally last week. "Don't sit here and say that you're going to get our roads fixed by increasing the gas tax."
The "Yes on 6" campaign has also questioned whether public transit and biking and walking infrastructure are worthwhile investments of gas tax revenue. Diane Harkey, a Republican member of the state Board of Equalization who is running in the 49th congressional district, said at last week's rally that the gas tax increase, and various state efforts to encourage biking and transit ridership, were "fraud."
"This is just fraud," Harkey said. "It's forcing you to take bikes, get on trains, hose off at the depot and try to get to work. That does not work. That does not work with my hair and heels. I cannot do that and I will not do that."
And Diane Harkey: "This is just fraud. It's forcing you to take bikes, get on trains, hose off at the depot and try to get to work. That does not work. That does not work with my hair and heels. I cannot do that and I will not do that." pic.twitter.com/ITsIUSbje8— ?ndrew B?wen (@acbowen) October 17, 2018
In addition to repealing last year's gas tax increase, Prop 6 would also require voter approval for any future gas tax hikes. Mark Jacobsen, a UC San Diego professor who studies the economics of climate change, said that could hurt the state's ability to get people out of cars.
Jacobsen said the impact of higher gas prices on consumer behavior and carbon emissions can be subtle and slow-moving. Drivers may feel they have no choice but to fill their tanks and drive to work, he said, but sustained higher gas prices do influence people's decisions on whether to live closer to work or buy a more fuel-efficient car.
"All those very small things in response to a price increase add up, and they actually amount to gasoline savings over time," he said.