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Why California’s eco-friendly, tax-the-rich electorate killed Prop. 30

EV Cars charging at a Tesla supercharger charging station.
Rahul Lal
/
CalMatters
A Tesla supercharger charging station in Sacramento on July 29, 2022.

Voting down Proposition 30 might seem a little off-brand for the California electorate.

These are the voters, after all, who showed no qualms just a decade ago about hiking income taxes on top earners and also hit millionaires in 2004 to pay for mental health services. These are the California majorities who, as recently as June, told pollsters that they were either considering or had already purchased an electric car. Most named air pollution, wildfire and climate change as areas of major personal concern.

And yet the ballot measure that would have increased taxes on about 43,000 multimillionaires (on income above $2 million a year) to fund electric car rebates and combat wildfires has suffered an unambiguous defeat. In the statewide vote count as of late Wednesday, 59% rejected the proposal.

At first glance, the fate of Prop. 30 may be the most compelling head-scratcher of the 2022 California election. But for the campaigns on both sides of the highly contested measure, and for many independent political observers to boot, there’s an obvious answer to this electoral mystery — and its name is Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“You can’t remove the governor from it,” said Matt Rodriguez, campaign manager for No on 30. “He’s a credible messenger on the opposition side, simply because I think a lot of people and a lot of Democrats take their cues from him.”

Newsom’s decision to come out swinging against Prop. 30 in mid-September caught many political observers by surprise. That’s both because his position seemed at odds with his reputation as a climate advocate in general and a booster of electric cars specifically, and because his opposition was so fervent. Of the seven measures on the state ballot this year, the governor only lent his likeness and directed his own campaign resources to two — the overwhelmingly successful Prop. 1 to codify abortion rights in the California constitution, and Prop. 30, a riskier political gambit.

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the media from a podium.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
/
CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the media at a Propostion 1 victory event at The Citizen Hotel in Sacramento on Nov. 8, 2022.

That was a coup for the anti-Prop. 30 forces. Comparing polls taken before and after the governor cut his first “No on 30” ad, public support wilted — especially among supporters.

“The drop among those who approve of Newsom was three times greater than those who were disapproving,” said Dean Bonner, associate survey director at the Public Policy Institute of California. The No campaign found a similar shift in its private polling.

Mary Creasman, CEO of California Environmental Voters and a member of the campaign supporting Prop. 30, also said Newsom’s role “100%” contributed to the measure’s demise, though she also blamed the “No” campaign for what she said were “lies” about what the ballot measure would actually do.

Prop. 30 “had a record number of billionaires against it, it had complete falsehoods thrown at it, and it had the most popular Democratic leader in the state against it,” she said. “And we still got 40% of the vote.”

Specifically, Creasman said the suggestion, made by Newsom and in many No on 30 ads, that Prop. 30 would have specifically benefited Lyft was false. In fact, though the measure could have helped the rideshare company meet some of the state’s vehicle electrification mandates, it would have done so by subsidizing zero-emission vehicles and expanding charging infrastructure in general, not by providing money to Lyft directly.

Lyft, however, provided roughly 94% of the funding, nearly $48 million, for the Yes on Prop. 30 campaign.

Creasman said she was especially puzzled by the governor’s position, given his support for a state policy to phase out the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. The governor and Legislature have committed $10 billion on zero-emission programs and subsidies over the next five years. But Creasman argued that making the mandated transition will require more, and more reliable, public funding.

The failure of Prop. 30 puts the ball in the governor’s court, she added.

“Where’s the money going to come from?” said Creasman. “If the governor has some exciting, innovative new stuff that he can pull out of his pocket and say, ‘Here’s how we’re gonna pay for it,’ we are all in.”

Not a referendum on climate

Both Creasman and Rodriguez cautioned against drawing any sweeping conclusions about California voters’ policy preferences from the outcome of this single contentious proposition.

Will voters “still be progressive on tax policy? I think possibly,” said Rodriguez. “Will they still be very progressive on climate? I think absolutely. I don’t think any of that is gone. I just think that voters weren’t fooled.”

David Vogel, author of “California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became An Environmental Leader” and a UC Berkeley professor emeritus, agreed.

“I don’t see it as a referendum at all on climate change or the environment,” he said of Prop. 30. He pointed to the governor’s opposition, the neutrality of some high-profile environmental organizations including the Sierra Club and the allegations of self-dealing by Lyft as top reasons for voter skepticism.

The Sierra Club’s decision not to endorse was motivated by concerns that some of the money that the measure would have directed toward wildfire mitigation could have funded clear-cutting forests.

But that was only one of many dueling endorsements and non-endorsements in the Prop. 30 campaign that may have confused voters.

In opposing the measure, Newsom joined traditional allies in the state’s two largest teachers’ unions, which warned that Prop. 30 could reduce state funding to public schools. But he broke with many Democrats and was on the same side as stranger political bedfellows, including the California Republican Party, the state Chamber of Commerce and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

On the yes side, the Democratic Party, many environmentalists and trades unions joined Lyft, even though they battled the corporate giant just two years over its successful referendum to exempt the company’s driver’s from a state labor law.

The utter strangeness of those coalitions likely contributed to the defeat of Prop. 30 too, said Paul Mitchell, with Political Data Inc., an election analysis firm that works with Democrats.

“I don’t think it was so much the governor’s messaging, but it was confusing to voters. It was like, ‘Wait, this is an environmental thing? It’s a Lyft thing? The governor isn’t for it?” he said.

Mitchell pointed to the trend in California politics that ballot measures frequently lose support as Election Day nears. That’s often because undecided and puzzled voters are driven by a “first do no harm” principle and. erring on the side of the status quo, vote “no.”

“Confusion is the best friend of the ‘no’ side,” said Mitchell. “You don’t have to even win the argument, you just have to muddy the waters.”

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written for San Francisco magazine, California magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Priceonomics. Ben also has a past life as an aspiring beancounter: He has worked as a summer associate at the Congressional Budget Office and has a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley.