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Ballot Fight Over Electric Car Tax Splits Newsom From Fellow Democrats

Electric cars are parked at a charging station in Sacramento, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli
Electric cars are parked at a charging station in Sacramento, Calif.

Proposition 30 would tax the wealthiest Californians to pay for electric car rebates and charging stations. Enviro groups support it and it's ahead in the polls. So why is Gov. Gavin Newsom joining business and conservative groups to oppose it?

Proposition 30, a "clean air initiative" that would tax the wealthiest Californians to pay for electric car rebates and charging stations, has majority support among likely voters.

According to a survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, 55% of likely voters support the measure.

At least, that's for now. The November election is still a ways out, but Prop. 30 has already generated major debate, breaking old alliances in the Democratic party and making odd political bedfellows of Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Chamber of Commerce and the conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Prop. 30 would raise the state income tax by 1.75% for people who make more than $2 million dollars each year.

The state would spend about half of that revenue on zero-emission vehicle rebates, while some of it would be spent on chargers and infrastructure and the rest would fund firefighting and suppression programs and hiring and training firefighters.

Newsom, who remains popular and influential in California, went all-in against the measure this week, making himself the face of the opposition by starring solo in an advertisement "warning" Californians not to vote for it, calling Prop. 30 a "Trojan horse" and a "cynical scheme" by the ride-hailing giant Lyft to "to grab a huge taxpayer-funded subsidy" to pay for a fleet of electric vehicles.

The day after Newsom's ad dropped, Lyft dumped an additional $10 million in support of Proposition 30. Big-money donors supporting the measure also include San Francisco venture capitalist Ron Conway and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer. But Lyft has contributed by far the most, a total of around $25 million.

On Wednesday, Bay Area heavyweights from the Democratic Party (and Newsom allies) rallied in support of Prop. 30 at a kickoff event in front of Oakland's City Hall, arguing in stark and personal terms that passing the measure is absolutely necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight air pollution from the state's biggest offenders: cars and wildfires.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said pollution is not only killing our planet, it is killing our people and "Prop. 30 will fix that. [It] is an innovative measure that all Californians must support, as if their lives depend on it."

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) grew up in the community of Foresthill, now located at the eastern flank of the monstrous Mosquito Fire, which has burned through more than 60,000 acres and into that town.

"The community I grew up in Foresthill is at threat of being completely wiped off the face of the Earth right now for me," she said. "That compels me to take action and to ask everyone to take action on this really critical issue."

Newsom's argument to voters: Prop. 30 is about Lyft, not climate

"Don't be fooled," Newsom said in his campaign ad, reportedly the only one Newsom will personally appear in this year. "Prop. 30 is being advertised as a climate initiative but in reality it was devised by a single corporation to funnel state income taxes to benefit their company."

Newsom's ad is a huge expenditure of political capital against a proposition that would fund electrical vehicle rebates and charging infrastructure — and comes only weeks after California solidified its plan to phase out the sale of gasoline-powered cars next decade.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Joe Garofoli reported that Newsom's traditional political enemies are loving him for starring in the ad.

Maybe it's good politics, if you're going to oppose Prop. 30, to paint it as a corporate bailout. But critics say it's a cynical and disingenuous take on the measure, which was actually devised by transit and environmental justice groups such as the Bay Area nonprofit think tank SPUR and Move LA from the Los Angeles area.

For years, those groups have pushed California to reduce its top source of greenhouse gas emissions: transportation.

Back in 2020, they convened a bunch of California's climate intelligentsia — including Mary Nichols, Newsom's former top air regulator — and asked them this question: If you had $30 billion to spend fighting climate change, what would you do?

The answer: Invest in electric vehicle rebates and chargers.

"Build out charging infrastructure for passenger cars," said Kevin de León, former leader of the state Senate, during that event. "The infrastructure has to be there."

Lyft president John Zimmer did not say the governor's name at Wednesday's rally for Prop. 30 in Oakland, but he did push back on Newsom's assertion that the measure was "devised" by the company he co-founded.

"This issue is far, far bigger than one company or a single industry," he said. "This is about the health of our neighbors and communities. That's why we agreed to get involved when environmental leaders approached us with their plan to reduce California emissions."

Last year California approved a mandate for ride-hailing companies: Ninety percent of their miles logged must be with electric cars by 2030. The company has said it supports that goal but has called it unrealistic without government subsidies to support charging infrastructure, which Prop. 30 would provide.

Zimmer said Prop. 30 would help "millions of Californians finally make the transition to electric vehicles," which would presumably include many of the company's drivers, too. "[Electric vehicles] should be for everyone," he said.

Californians support Prop. 1 and Prop. 27, too

The PPIC poll also surveyed likely California voters about two other hot-button ballot measures: Proposition 1, to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution; and Proposition 27, to legalize online sports betting.

The state Legislature placed Prop. 1 on the ballot in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion and referring the issue to the states. In the months since, Democrats in California have made it a centerpiece of their midterm campaigns, seeing it as an attractive wedge issue for the state's swing voters.

The PPIC survey finds overwhelming support for the measure, with 69% of likely voters and 67% of independents planning to vote yes. Just as important for supporters hoping the measure will boost turnout in competitive congressional seats: Sixty-one percent of the electorate says the outcome of Proposition 1 is "very important." The measure also enjoys the support of 70% of likely voters in districts deemed "competitive" by the Cook Political Report, which provides independent, nonpartisan analysis of federal and state election issues.

Despite an avalanche of campaign advertisements on both sides of Proposition 27, voters seem less invested in the outcome of that one, with just 29% naming the fate of online sports betting as "very important."

Gambling companies supporting the measure and the Native American tribes opposing it have raised a combined $260 million to blanket the airwaves with ads. With a month until voting begins, a majority of the electorate (54%) is opposed to allowing wagering on phones and computers, the poll found, compared to just 34% who support it.

The PPIC did not ask about Proposition 26, also on the November ballot, which would legalize roulette, games of dice and sports betting in tribal casinos.

KQED's Guy Marzorati contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 KQED