It sounds innocuous. In July, Central Coast State Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian voted in support of a bill that will help the state meet a number of its clean air goals.
AB 8, sponsored by Assembly member Henry Perea (D-Fresno), extends California’s clean transportation incentive programs for alternative fuels and vehicle technologies, promising to help the state meet a number of its clean air goals by keeping several fees in place until January 2024. Those fees include an $8 increase of the smog abatement fee, a $3 increase of the annual vehicle registration fee, a $5 increase in special identification plate fees, and others, all of which were first passed in 2007 and benefit programs aimed at reducing auto emissions in California.
The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass the Legislature, which it did. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill.
Anti-tax advocates panned it as a subsidy for things that typically wealthy individuals buy, such as electric vehicles. Environmental groups opposed it due to a single paragraph added into the bill that would put off for 12 years requiring oil companies to provide hydrogen-fueling stations for vehicles. The added language, some critics contend, was included to encourage GOP lawmakers to support the bill.
Whatever the tactic, it worked. The Democrat-sponsored bill wouldn’t have made it through the Assembly were it not for the support of a few GOP legislators, one of whom was Achadjian.
But Achadjian has taken considerable flack from anti-tax advocates who accuse him of violating his pledge to oppose any tax increases.
The pledge in question is one that has “transformed American politics” (according to Newsweek). It comes from Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative group that’s made waves for its controversial pledge as well as its outspoken founder and president Grover Norquist.
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge reads “ I, _____, pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ District of the State of _____ and all the people of this state that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.” Achadjian signed it when he was running for the Assembly in 2010, he told New Times.
“I have long opposed new taxes and believe that the best way to improve our state finances is to improve our economy and make government more efficient; therefore, I saw the pledge as consistent with my philosophy,” Achadjian wrote in an e-mail to the paper. “It’s important to note that by signing, I did not pledge to oppose any piece of legislation simply because it was opposed by ATR.”
Since his vote on the bill, Achadjian has taken hits in the blogosphere, namely via a series of articles published on the Sacramento-based CalWatchDog.com.
Achadjian said his decision to support the bill was based on feedback he received from constituents. He noted that it was also supported by a large coalition of trade associations, such as the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the California Farm Bureau Federation, and the California Trucking Association, as well as the Western State Petroleum Association and California Independent Oil Marketers Association.
He added that he received word of opposition from his constituents, but feedback has been a fairly even mix of positive and negative. He told New Times he still believes the air quality programs supported by the bill are “worthwhile” and should be continued, and added that that he hasn’t received any feedback from Americans for Tax Reform.
Asked about whether he sees his vote as inconsistent with the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, he argued the bill “will not result in Californians paying any new taxes.”
Further prodded about his thoughts on allegations by some constituents and political writers that he’s trying to have things both ways, Achadjian said he rejects that argument.
“This measure did not fit the traditional mold of conservative versus liberal. In fact, some very conservative legislators, including the Senate Republican leader, also voted in support of the measure,” he wrote. “Anyone who knows me knows that I do what I believe is best for my district. My vote on AB 8 was no different.”
It’s true: Achadjian wasn’t the only GOP legislator to sign the tax extension, nor the only signee to have made the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.
In 2011, when Achadjian was running for the Assembly, he received an 88 percent score from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which recently opposed AB 8. Today, his rating is 67.1 percent, and he was given a “D” grade. Jon Coupal, president of the association, told New Times that the extension will cost California taxpayers somewhere in the ballpark of $2.3 billion.
“It was about a $2 billion tax increase and scored as a tax increase by the Legislature, requiring a two-thirds vote [to pass],” Coupal told New Times. “I don’t think there’s a lot of intellectual cover on that.”
He argued that with AB 8, the Democrats held regulatory relief hostage in order to get the tax extension passed, and thanks to GOP lawmakers who went along with it, the Democrats now “have a template for how to get tax increases approved.
“That is the M.O. you’re going to see going forward,” Coupal warned. “As far as AB 8 goes, you can’t extract $2.3 billion out of the pockets of taxpayers without calling that an increase.”
The local Republican Party didn’t return New Times’ phone or e-mail requests for comment, nor did Jon Kartch, spokesman for Americans for Tax Reform.
News Editor Matt Fountain can be reached at email@example.com.