‘Over The Line’: Emails Show California Officials Coordinated With Pro-Gas Tax Campaigners

Chris White | Energy Reporter
  • Ethics experts dinged California government agency that coordinated with a public relations firm working to defeat the gas tax repeal.
  • Emails show tight coordination between a California agency and interest groups that support the state’s recent gas tax increase.
  •  Memos show California’s transportation agency worked with a public firm to lobby Republicans to keep the state’s gas tax increase.

California’s transportation agency frequently coordinated with a public relations firm working to block the repeal of a contentious gas tax Democrats signed into law in 2017, the Associated Press reported Monday night.

The California State Transportation Agency and Sacramento-based Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks organized press conferences to promote legislation raising the tax to fund infrastructure improvements. They continued planning events as gas tax opponents began gathering signatures for repeal. Republicans are campaigning to nix the tax.

Much of the communications between BCF and Caltrans involved politics, according to more than 200 emails from 2017 the AP obtained through the California Public Records Act. One of the memos shows BCF communicating with the agency about efforts to support Proposition 69, a June ballot measure involving how the gas tax is spent.

BCF partner Kathy Fairbanks, for instance, discussed the layout for a campaign logo in January pushing the ballot measure. The agency and firm are still planning to coordinate efforts for several months through the primary, a trove of undated memos show.

Ethics experts argue the coordinated campaign efforts cross a clear line. (RELATED: Gas Taxes Loom Large As Pro-Trump Candidate Seeks California’s Governor’s Mansion)

The current price of gasoline is shown on a gas pump at an Arco gas station in San Diego, California, U.S. July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

“Clearly the agency was trying to coordinate with the campaign, and they shouldn’t have,” Bob Stern, a government ethics expert who helped write California’s campaign laws, told AP reporters.

Another expert took her criticism one step further. Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and government ethics expert, said the relationship between the firm and agency appears too close. “I mean way over the line,” she said.

Agency officials argue the campaign is important to help citizens understand the tax increase. It’s the agency’s job to inform the public about the impact of laws, and it has done so in the past, Melissa Figueroa, the agency’s deputy secretary for communications and strategic planning, told reporters. “We’re trying to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Figueroa said.

The law, passed April 6, 2017, imposes a 12 cents per gallon (cpg) hike on citizens and raises the tax on diesel fuel by 20 cpg. It also implements an additional charge to annual vehicle license fees ranging from $25 to $175 depending on the car’s value. Californians have some experience with similar measures.

A similar gas tax increase helped bring down former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 after he signed legislation dramatically increasing the vehicle license fee. No one clamored to recall Brown, but Los Angeles Republicans collected enough signatures to force the recall of state Sen. Josh Newman, a Democrat many consider the point-man for the effort.

Another BCF partner, Brandon Castillo, told reporters that the coalition became a ballot measure campaign in March to support Proposition 69. He sent an email about op-eds focused on GOP candidates on Sept. 20, 2017.

“Hey Melissa — We’re penning opeds (sic) targeting the following congressional republicans,” Castillo wrote at the time, identifying identified Reps. Jeff Denham and Steve King, among others, and asked Figueroa for information about projects the gas tax increase is helping to fund.

BCF and union members were working at the time to persuade California’s influential Republican congressional delegates to reject the repeal. Supporters and opponents of the gas tax will get a chance in November to determine the future of the gas tax.

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