California judge says he'll write gas tax ballot language

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California judge said Friday he'll write the official ballot description for an initiative that would repeal a recent gas tax increase after he ruled that the title and summary written by Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra was misleading.

Sacramento County Judge Timothy Frawley said Becerra's description would confuse voters because it focuses on the loss of transportation funding rather than the repeal of taxes.

He sided with Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach, a candidate for governor, who is promoting the gas tax repeal initiative and filed a lawsuit challenging Becerra's ballot title and summary.

Republicans view anger over the gas tax as a potentially powerful election issue in 2018.

Frawley noted that the law requires him to give deference to the attorney general's ballot description, but he said it was so deceptive that it must be tweaked.

"Deference does not mean abdication," Frawley said. "In this circumstance, I honestly believe that the title and summary ... is misleading."

The judge said he'd hoped lawyers for Becerra and Allen could agree on a compromise, but since they couldn't he'll write a new title and summary himself.

"I think he has properly seen that the attorney general tried to intentionally mislead the voters of California because he's trying to prejudice their vote and keep increased taxes for California," Allen said after the hearing.

The ballot title and summary would appear on petition forms and the ballot if it qualifies. It must be finalized before Allen and his allies can begin collecting signatures in an attempt to put the repeal bill on the November 2018 ballot.

Deputy Attorney General Seth Goldstein said the ballot title was not misleading, and focusing on the gas tax repeal would ignore the other effects of repealing SB1, the bill that raised the gas tax.

He pointed to the creation of an inspector general at the California Department of Transportation and a requirement for the state to work with minority-owned businesses, among other provisions.

"This isn't about taxes, this is about the repeal of SB1," Goldstein said. "And a fair title and summary needs to mention all of the things that SB1 does, not just focus on taxes."

Lawmakers voted in April to boost gas taxes and vehicle fees to raise $5 billion a year for road repairs. Starting Nov. 1, gas taxes will increase by 12 cents a gallon and diesel taxes by 20 cents.

Next year, a new fee tied to vehicle registrations will cost motorists between $25 and $175 depending on the value of the vehicle.

And in 2020, zero-emission vehicle owners will be charged a $100 fee with their vehicle registration since they do not contribute to road maintenance through gas taxes.

"It's about his gubernatorial race, nothing else," said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the Fix Our Roads Coalition, which supported the gas tax hike and intends to work against any ballot measure repealing it. "He's condemning the voters to driving on potholed roads, stuck in traffic."

It's unclear whether Allen will have the money required to collect the 366,000 signatures required or mount an aggressive campaign to counter spending by Fix Our Roads, which is funded by construction unions, contractors and business groups.

A separate initiative proposed this month would repeal the recent gas tax hike while amending the state constitution to require any future gas tax hike to receive voter approval.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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