Last month, eight Republicans in the California Legislature made the unfortunate decision to vote for an extension of cap and trade that will increase the cost of fuel by as much as 71 cents a gallon by 2031. The primary justification was that the market-based cap-and-trade solution was preferable to any option controlled solely by the powerful and hostile California Air Resources Board. While that argument can’t be discounted, it is nonetheless useful to speculate what would have happened if no Republicans supported the deal.
Historically, Republicans have been the primary defenders of California’s middle-class taxpayers. They almost always vote against any proposal to weaken Proposition 13 and for that they deserve our thanks. But there is no debate that the cap-and-trade legislation will increase gas prices. The only debate is over how much.
Republicans in the Legislature should also be thanked for providing the lion’s share of votes against the cap-and-trade bill. But now they are in a situation where they have to explain why eight of them voted for the bill which has created a significant messaging problem. Voters don’t understand cap and trade and they don’t understand what “saving them” from a $2 fuel price increase looks like because they’ve never experienced it. Compounding the messaging problem is the inevitable political fallout. Republican support gave Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown acres of political cover. Democratic legislators in at least two marginal seats were protected against having to cast a vote for higher energy costs and Gov. Brown secured a relatively stable source of funding for high-speed rail.
So what would have happened if no Republican legislators voted for cap and trade? Conceivably, Gov. Brown could have demanded Democratic allegiance and, using both carrots and sticks, may have secured it. But that would put Democrats in marginal districts at tremendous risk. At a minimum, Republicans could have leveraged their opposition for policies that actually are friendly to citizen taxpayers including, but not limited to, a rebate or broad based sales tax reduction for consumers to offset the added cost of gas over the next decade.
Republican refusal to give in to the type of extortion reflected in the cap-and-trade bill may very well have forced the Democrats into approving a CARB-style bureaucracy with a simple majority vote — which, by the way, might still happen. The far-left of the Democratic Party may have cheered but, for Republicans, it would open up vast new demographics — working Hispanics, other ethnic groups and recent immigrants — for whom just a few more cents in a gallon of gas is a big deal.
Unfailing opposition to the deal by Republicans would have provided something else almost always absent from California politics — clarity and accountability. When gas prices go through the roof — which they surely will — there would be no doubt which party to blame.
But we’ll never know as it will be difficult, if not impossible, to repair the damage and restore the Republican brand. Thus the odds of Republicans gaining seats in any of the next four election cycles (thanks to redistricting in 2022) are now in doubt. And for what? So Republicans can now adopt the losing argument that they voted for increased fuel costs to save taxpayers from even higher prices? What ordinary voting taxpayer is going to buy that argument?
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.