VICTORVILLE — Assemblyman Jay Obernolte on Wednesday characterized 2017 as “a disaster for taxpayers” in California, tethering the prospectus to the gas tax increase officially enacted hours earlier that he and other state Republicans are seeking to repeal.
The increase of 12 cents per gallon beginning Wednesday, and more for diesel gas, is part of a package backed by Democrats in April that is expected to raise $5 billion yearly for road and highway repairs. It includes added vehicle registration fees.
Obernolte, R-Hesperia, called it a “substantial, substantial burden on Californians,” pointing to research that showed about 60 percent of High Desert residents, specifically, were commuters.
“Those are the people who are going to be impacted by this the most,” he told an audience at the Victor Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Valley Morning Insight. “The people that can least afford it are going to be disproportionately impacted.”
The financial infliction and Sacramento’s penchant for diverting funds ostensibly for one purpose to other uses, he said, were reasons enough for state Republicans to file an initiative to repeal the tax and also to seek a constitutional amendment that would require voter approval on all tax increases.
“If the legislature is not willing to be responsive and (fellow Republicans) can’t get enough votes to overturn these disastrous actions, which we’ve tried and not been able to do,” Obernolte said, “we believe the next step is to take it to the voters in California.”
The repeal initiative remains tied up in court, but the signature-gathering campaign is expected to situate at gas stations across California, he added, suggesting that as many as 70 percent of voters are likely to oppose the gas tax increase when supplied with the facts.
A key carrot for voters might be that 30 percent of gas tax funding will be spent on non-road related projects, according to Obernolte. It’s an argument put forth earlier this year by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez.
PolitiFact found some truth to the claim, determining that Gov. Jerry Brown’s May budget “shows about 30 percent of the revenue from this transportation measure goes to categories that won’t directly improve roads for cars and trucks.”
Most of that 30-percent chunk is earmarked for bicycle, transit and rail projects, according to PolitiFact, but other projects like parks — which Obernolte cited Wednesday — and workforce training represent less than 3 percent of overall funding. Roads, meanwhile, will see in the future an increased share of the overall funding.
But Obernolte said a proposal he co-authored this year would have generated identical revenue by utilizing existing transportation money, including dollars diverted to the general fund, to expand road capacity without raising taxes.
His plan would have been budget transparent, he insisted, unlike the gas tax and others he has castigated.
The typically optimistic and even-keeled lawmaker, who’s ascended the Republican ranks since his election in 2014, also acknowledged that this year had been more trying than those before. In the past nine months, he said, there have been more tax increases than during his first two years combined.
“It has been for me, personally, the hardest year, and the reason has been that my job requires a certain amount of emotional distance between what we’re voting on and effects it has on California,” he said. “You have to have the ability, emotionally, to move on because there’s always something important that you’re either supporting or opposing behind it.
“But this year, I’ve really struggled with that just because I believe that this year was a disaster for taxpayers in California and it’s really hard for me to get away from that.”
During the morning chamber meet-up, Obernolte also touched upon the escalating violence in the High Desert — marked by a rise in homicides this year — and traced the trend, in part, back to criminal justice reforms that have shifted state prisoner responsibility to local jails, reduced the severity of certain crimes and provided judges with options to enact more lenient sentences.
“That’s one of the things that really, really gets my blood boiling,” he said, “because I see firsthand, when I come back to the district, the effects they have on people I represent.”
He added that there has been an 8 percent increase in violent crime statewide.
He said he was supporting a constitutional amendment for next year’s ballot that would re-classify certain crimes as violent, including assault on a peace officer and sexual assault of an unconscious victim; allow DNA collection for misdemeanor crimes previously classified as felonies; and enable three misdemeanor thefts to be prosecuted as a felony under the term “serial theft.”
Obernolte had eight bills signed by the governor this year, which the lawmaker described as a mix of local- and state-level problem solvers.