Leaders of a campaign to repeal California’s recent gas tax increase asked the federal government this week to investigate their claims that public resources have been used against them.
Their allegations are based on emails and other documents that appear to show local government workers discussing the repeal effort, known as Proposition 6. In one, a San Francisco official says in an email that showing how gas tax funds benefit the city is important “to support the anti-repeal campaign.”
“It’s damning, it’s unacceptable,” Proposition 6 campaign leader Carl DeMaio said Tuesday. “They are using taxpayer dollars to influence an election.”
Republican Congressman Ken Calvert requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general, saying some of the agencies involved receive some federal money. De Maio said he obtained the emails through public records requests and that he also plans to file complaints with local district attorneys. He held a press conference Wednesday outlining the charges.
A spokeswoman for the anti-Proposition 6 campaign denied improper behavior.
“The No on Prop 6 campaign follows all campaign laws,” Robin Swanson said in a statement. “We’re working hard to educate voters about how damaging Prop 6 will be to the safety of our roads and bridges.”
A law called SB1 , passed by California lawmakers, raised gasoline taxes by 12 cents a gallon starting last November and diesel taxes by 20 cents. Diesel sales taxes also rose, and drivers are paying a new annual fee with their vehicle registration, ranging from $25 to $175 depending on the value of the vehicle. The taxes and fees all rise each year, based on inflation.
It’s projected to increase about $5 billion a year to address a backlog of deferred maintenance on state and local roadways. The California Department of Transportation highlights projects funded by the tax increase on signs around the state that include an address to a website outlining how SB1 money is spent.
The California Department of Transportation said Wednesday it will not include the website address on future signs after federal officials said it may not comply with rules that aim to ensure road signs are easy to read, department spokesman Matt Rocco said. The change will not affect the cost, Rocco said.
DeMaio highlighted a news story about the signs’ possible non-compliance as further evidence of wrongdoing.
Proposition 6 would repeal the tax and fee increases and also require voter approval for any future increases in gas taxes or vehicle fees. Opponents of the ballot measure say the tax increase benefits the state and is needed to repair the state’s crumbling roads.
In one email exchange from June, a few days before Proposition 6 officially qualified for the ballot, the Sacramento Regional Transit Agency asks an organization it contracts with to help with its “educational campaign” that “related to the gas tax repeal.”
Devra Selenis, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the agency has never told people how to vote. On behalf of RT, the contractor, Valley Vision, organized a community event where various groups highlighted the benefits of SB1, she said.
“We are allowed to educate on benefits of what SB1 covers and that’s all we’ve ever done,” Selenis said. “That is the public’s right to know what we spend money on.”
The Proposition 6 campaign alleges the emails show an attempt to influence the outcome of the ballot measure because the education campaign is scheduled through the election and is “related to the gas tax repeal.”
DeMaio also points to a Sept. 25, 2017, email sent by Kate Breen, the government affairs director for the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, to colleagues, in which she summarizes the progress of efforts to repeal SB1.
“To support the anti-repeal campaign, it will be important that SF continues to document how SB 1 finds (sic) are benefiting SF,” Breen wrote.
Proposition 6 proponents say the email indicates the transit agency was interested in influencing the campaign. It’s not clear what efforts the agency did to promote the gas tax. The email was sent before the measure qualified for the ballot but after the campaign had filed paperwork to begin collecting signatures.
“The proposition hadn’t even qualified for the statewide ballot,” Paul Rose, the transit agency’s spokesman, said in an email. “There was no campaign to work for or against. Since that time the measure has become real and we have been very careful not to advocate as a public agency.”
In another email released by the Proposition 6 campaign, the California Transit Association, a lobbying organization, sent a plan to local government agencies outlining campaigning plans to oppose SB1 repeal. It’s not clear from the documents if any of the government agencies copied on the email acted on the plan laid out by the association. The October 2017 email describes efforts to persuade vulnerable Republican members of Congress to avoid backing Proposition 6.
DeMaio also pointed to signs at construction sites saying “your tax dollars at work” with a prominent SB1 logo and allegations that state contractors distributed fliers urging voters to keep the tax increase in place. The Fair Political Practices Commission has said it’s investigating the matter.
SOPHIA BOLLAG and JONATHAN J. COOPER