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Monday, June Cutter, a Republican running to unseat Assemblyman Brian Maienschein acted the way you might when a perfectly laid trap snatches its prey.
California Assembly Republicans had pushed the body to vote on whether they could have a vote to suspend the state’s gas tax while prices at the pump reached new heights. Maienschein appeared to vote against the measure (and thus in support of keeping the tax in place) only to turn his vote into an abstention.
Cutter recorded the vote live and tweeted it.
Reached later, Maienschein sent a statement. He actually does support suspending the gas tax and referred to his previous position opposing an increase to the tax.
“I voted against the gas tax. Naturally, I support its suspension as part of this year’s budget discussions,” he wrote. He did not explain why he abstained from the vote.
The vote, pushed by Assemblyman Kevin Kiley left San Diego Democrats scrambling for a coherent response. The state adds a bit more than 50 cents to every gallon of gasoline sold in California. The money pays for roads and infrastructure and the state has already borrowed funds to build things with that money in mind.
But the cost of gasoline has soared because of supply constraints, global unrest and increased demand. The pain everyday consumers face as a result has raised tensions across the region. Gov. Gavin Newsom felt it and acknowledged it last week in his State of the State speech.
“In January we proposed to pause the gas tax increase. Now, it’s clear we must go further. That’s why — working with Legislative leadership — I’ll be submitting a proposal to put money back in the pockets of Californians, to address rising gas prices,” he said.
The push to suspend the gas tax immediately, however, was a move to do something more quickly and it put Assembly Democrats on their heels in a way few other state Republican maneuvers have in years.
Progressives have lots of arguments in favor of the gas tax: Gas should be expensive because of how badly burning it impacts the environment. The money funds good construction jobs and valuable infrastructure.
San Diego County supervisors, including three Democrats, voted Tuesday unanimously to ask the state to suspend the gas tax for one year (though the vote also included support for the governor’s as yet undetermined rebate plan). But a similar bipartisan ground wasn’t found in Sacramento. The San Diego delegation to Sacramento was not in the mood to entertain the proposal to suspend the gas tax and turned to a mix of vitriol and process complaints in response to the Republicans’ Legislative move.
Assemblywoman Tasha Boernar-Horvath had the harshest comment. In a statement, she called it a “political stunt by a far-right Republican to exclude the public from the policy-making process.”
She said she knew that gas prices were hurting Californians but blamed companies.
“I understand the frustration felt at high gas prices – set by the same oil companies which made record profits in 2021 and are trying to make as much money as they can off the conflict in Ukraine,” she said.
She was unwilling to pause the gas tax because the money was needed for infrastructure. The Republican bill would allow the state to backfill bond payments and other needs from the general fund.
Assemblywoman Akilah Weber deferred to a process argument to explain why she didn’t support the move. The bill was brought forward, she said, “without reference to file” and had not been heard in any committees and she had not had the opportunity to read it.
Nonetheless, she agrees the pain at the pump is real and hurting Californians.
“I am eager and committed to finding ways to alleviate this pain and look forward to working with Governor Newsom to get cash back into your pockets,” she wrote.
Assemblyman Chris Ward also shared the frustration about the fuel prices. But the Republican move wasn’t going to help, he wrote in a statement to Voice of San Diego.
“Yesterday’s show by Republicans on the Assembly Floor was a smoke-and-mirrors tactic to stoke anger and I’m sure for some, that’s working,” he said. “Were a pre-existing gas tax suspended, our bond and financial mechanisms currently supporting road repair would default, and nothing would stop gas stations from increasing their prices again to levels consumers are begrudgingly willing to pay.”
It’s unclear what form the governor and Legislature’s own relief package will take or when. Republicans say it’s at least two months off.
State Senate President Toni Atkins, who represents San Diego, said it was on its way.
“I am working with my colleagues in the legislature and the Governor’s office to bring forward relief that will return hundreds of dollars from the General Fund to California families. With equity in mind, this will provide much-needed financial help, especially for lower and middle-income families, while not impacting funding that is vital to our schools and infrastructure, or family-supporting construction jobs,” she said.
Cutter was thrilled that the vote helped clarify Maienschein’s party alignment. Maienschein used to be a Republican before leaving the party two years ago and joining the Democrats. It helped him keep his spot in the Assembly.
“The motion made yesterday would have given immediate relief to families,” she said. “We don’t know what a rebate will look like. The suspension of the gas tax would require no red tape or cost to administer but a rebate will mean the state picks and chooses beneficiaries, and it will take money to administer.”
If Maienschein’s abstention was intended to keep him in line with Democrats while avoiding the fallout of the vote, it doesn’t seem to have worked.