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Is Anyone Out There Blipping for the Gas Tax? : Highways: There's confusion on the popular mood regarding the state transportation initiative. Is it gaining or not?

November 05, 1989|JOE SCOTT | Joe Scott is political journalist in Los Angeles. and

Are California's voters any less phobic about higher taxes today than they were a year ago, when they embraced George Bush's no-new-taxes pledge?

At issue is the voter appeal of a June ballot initiative that would, over time, raise the state gas tax by 9 cents a gallon to pay for highway and transit improvements. SCA 1, as the measure is known, would also raise the Gann spending limit to accommodate the new expenditures.

The initiative enjoys the blessings of Gov. George Deukmejian and legislative leaders. But their endorsements, let's face it, stand little chance of reversing the state's decade-long aversion, first evident in passage of Proposition 13, against higher taxes--no matter how noble the cause.

Nature, however, might have accomplished what California politicians can only dream about. Last July, the California Poll rated SCA 1's chances of success at roughly 50%. Then came the Oct. 17 earthquake. Voters were so shaken up, according to the latest California Poll, that 9% more joined the yes-on-SCA 1 camp.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 1989 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 5 Column 5 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Poll--Last Sunday's Joe Scott column incorrectly reported that a Times poll on a June ballot initiative raising the gas tax did not specify to respondents how the new revenue would be spent. The poll question did so.

But a Los Angeles Times Poll, also taken after the San Francisco quake, indicates that nature has no such power. Only 25%, the same number as before the shaking started, said they would vote for SCA 1.

The explanation may lie in how the tax question was put to the polls' respondents. In the Times Poll, no mention was made of how the new revenue would be spent. The California Poll, which used the initiative's wording to frame the question, specified the purpose. The Times question also got to the bottom line much faster: Do you want your gas taxes to go up?

In explaining the conflicting findings, Mervin Field of the California Poll accused I.A. (Bud) Lewis of the Times Poll of asking a "very loaded question." Yet, he conceded that the gas-tax-hike issue may be in a state of flux. "My guess is (the poll jump) is a temporary blip." As for Lewis: "Mervin and I simply disagree." (In his private soundings, L.A. pollster Arnold Steinberg found SCA 1 "losing substantially" in San Diego and Orange counties.)

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee and a big booster of SCA 1, pooh-poohs the polling as an exaggeration of the electorate's mood. Support for the measure, he believes, is 45%, about where Field pegged it last summer. But Katz is justifiably anxious that the level of support isn't going to rise from there.

The good news for SCA 1 backers is that followers of the late Paul Gann, whose spending limit would be lifted by passage of the initiative, are fence-sitting. The bad news is that they might not remain there.

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