In Meg Whitman's World, 2 Cent Gas Tax Hike in 1981 Equals "A Record of Higher and Higher Taxes"

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Even though the gubernatorial general election season in California is less than two weeks old, the rhetoric between the candidates on fiscal and tax policy is already taking a turn for the worse. Republican candidate Meg Whitman’s campaign is trying to turn a 2 cent gas tax hike in 1981 into “a record of higher and higher taxes, more and more spending.” Statements like this by Whitman about Democratic candidate Jerry Brown’s record and California’s fiscal history are both misleading and betray a troubling lack of nuance in understanding California’s serious budget issues.  

Even before Brown had officially announced his candidacy for Governor in March, Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman had already fired an opening shot attacking Brown’s public service record in California. In a document entitled “A Voter’s Guide to Jerry Brown,” Whitman attempts to portray Brown as a "fiscal failure" during his time as governor, mayor and attorney general.

Not surprisingly, Whitman’s "voter’s guide" places much of Jerry Brown’s record out of context and ignores the reality of California’s fiscal history. For example, the document attacks Brown for approving a 2 cent increase in the gas tax as governor in 1981. What the guide and Whitman fail to mention is that this tax increase had the support of almost half of State House Republicans and was designed to fix a $2.5 billion deficit in transportation funding.

In an op-ed on June 6th in the San Diego Union Tribune, Brown defended his fiscal record, writing that during his term taxes were reduced by $4 billion overall. Whitman’s campaign attacked again by pointing out his opposition to Proposition 13 and quoting a 1992 New York Times article which said that he had turned a budget surplus into a more than $1 billion deficit. Showing how campaign rhetoric can be both misleading and contradictory, the Whitman campaign excludes the proceeding line of the same New York Times article which states that the nearly $7 billion dollars in cuts due to Proposition 13, which Whitman supports and accuses Brown of opposing, were a major cause of the fiscal problems.

As Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee observed in a recent op-ed, “In a rational world, Whitman wouldn't be criticizing Brown for raising the gas tax but for cutting state taxes in 1978 as he and the Legislature simultaneously assumed billions of dollars of new financial burden for schools and local government because of Proposition 13's property tax cut.”

Whitman simplistically assumes that all spending and taxes are bad.  In fact, Brown’s bipartisan increase in the gas tax to meet the transportation needs of California citizens was an attempt by a governor to achieve a responsible balance in the budget.  

With recent polls showing Brown and Whitman locked in a dead heat and the recent failure of lawmakers to pass a budget, this is only the beginning of what will become an even more heated debate in the gubernatorial campaign over California’s budget.

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