His office could not explain why the senator chose $75,000 as the cutoff, but said that level would cover about two-thirds of Californians.
The current federal tax credit, which applies to 3 million Californians making less than $51,000 annually, gave those residents an average refund of $2,900 in 2011. Steinberg said his tax credit would return about $600 per family based on the higher income level.
The remaining third of the revenue would go to unspecified mass transit programs with the goal of getting more Californians out of their automobiles.
Steinberg's proposal was met immediately with skepticism.
Jim Evans, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, declined to comment directly but said the Democratic governor stated earlier this year that he opposes any additional new taxes after California voters approved temporary income and sales tax increases in 2012. Brown is expected to run for re-election this year.
Steinberg argued that only the mass transit portion of his proposal would be a tax increase, since two-thirds of the carbon tax revenue would be returned to households that met the $75,000-a-year income threshold.
Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, and Will Shuck, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, expressed skepticism that Steinberg would be able to muster the necessary votes to get the plan out of his own house.
"The message it sends to middle class families and small businesses is 'take a hike,'" DeMarco said.
Spokesmen for the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council also criticized Steinberg's proposal, which they said would undermine the existing cap-and-trade law by diverting money that otherwise would be used for anti-pollution efforts.