Gas prices in East Los Angeles on Sept. 29, 2023.
Gas prices in East Los Angeles on Sept. 29, 2023. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters

With California gas prices hovering roughly $2 above the national average — sometimes $3 depending where you are — the state’s Energy Commission today is expected to consider whether to take a key step toward penalties on windfall oil profits, and to broaden what data its new watchdog agency can collect.

Quick reminder: The agency was formed in June after Gov. Gavin Newsom called a special legislative session last year to combat rising gas prices and what the administration saw as price gouging from oil companies. Instead of a direct penalty on profits, the session ultimately created the new division where oil companies must submit reports detailing their operations and finances.

The two actions before the commission today were recommended by Newsom last month, when he also ordered the California Air Resources Board to allow gas stations to sell a lower-cost blend of fuel earlier. In the same letter, he also directed the energy commission to look into “an unusual transaction” on the spot market that contributed to a September price spike.

Many variables can contribute to rising gas prices: The war in Ukraine affecting global supply, imports of crude oil from China, even the recently hot summer reducing production capacities, reports The New York Times. Gas is more expensive in California, which has higher state taxes, which requires a cleaner blend of gas during the summer and where maintenance issues impacted inventory at refineries months ago. 

Those higher taxes are a sore point for Republican state legislators, who urged the governor in September to call another special session to suspend the state’s gas tax. To date, Newsom has not publicly addressed their request, which has frustrated GOP lawmakers who argue that suspending the tax for one year could lower prices by as much as $1 a gallon

In a statement to CalMatters, Sen. Brian Dahle, a Redding Republican and vice chairperson of the Senate energy committee, described the potential penalty as a “gimmick.”

  • Dahle: “To truly lower prices, you produce cleaner fuels domestically, instead of importing from foreign countries that devastate the environment and violate human rights. The interest in collecting more data isn’t so they can do right by Californians, it’s just a way to ‘legally’ steal proprietary information from businesses here. They aren’t satisfied until they price out the private sector in this state.”

As of Tuesday, the average price per gallon in California was $5.59 — lower than last week’s by 18 cents, but still higher than the national average by $2.01, according to AAA.

For the record: An item in Tuesday’s WhatMatters about fundraising in the U.S. Senate race gave incomplete information about a contribution from Stewart Resnick, president of The Wonderful Company. While the campaign of Rep. Adam Schiff refunded a $3,300 donation, the same amount was later given to the Schiff Victory Fund political action committee, according to documents provided by the company. The money was from Resnick, not the company.   

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Workplace fairness: Our friends at Zocalo Public Square are holding an event at 6 p.m. today on the challenges of turning pro-labor laws into better realities for workers faced with discrimination, dangerous conditions and unpaid overtime. Register here for the in-person and virtual event.

‘Parole’ for undocumented farmworkers?

Farmworkers work on a field outside of Bakersfield in Kern County on July 25 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Farmworkers in Bakersfield on July 25, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

From Nicole Foy of CalMatters California Divide team:

A new state law could set the stage for California to work with the federal government on a new type of immigration relief for the state’s farmworkers.

Earlier this month, Gov. Newsom signed Senate Bill 831, which advocates say would be the first step to allowing undocumented agricultural workers in California to work legally in the state. The legislation calls for the governor to work with the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to develop a program that would grant agricultural workers in the state some form of immigration parole, legal work visas and thus protection from deportation.

  • Sen. Anna Caballero, a Merced Democrat and bill author: “They generate billions of dollars for our economy and produce hundreds of commodities for domestic and international consumption, yet risk deportation by the Federal Government for not having a work permit or ‘legal’ resident status.”

The law only authorizes the governor’s office to establish a working group with federal agencies to explore the issue. It doesn’t specify how much an eventual program would cost, how many California agricultural workers could qualify or when development of the program would begin. Previous versions of the bill called for creating a pilot program with a path to permanent residency for undocumented farmworkers who have worked in California for at least five years.

Immigration regulation and enforcement remains the purview of the federal government.  Congress has repeatedly failed to legislate meaningful immigration reform for decades, unable to compromise on attempted solutions for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, the Affordable and Secure Food Act or the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would have provided longtime farmworkers with a path to residency. 

United Farm Workers spokesperson Antonio De Loera-Brust said that there would be “significant public benefits” if some sort of immigration parole could be extended to undocumented farmworkers in California and that the UFW would continue advocating for a path to citizenship for farmworkers.

  • De Loera-Brust, in an interview: “Parole status for farmworkers will help address the threat of deportation, family separation, and exclusion from benefits due to immigration status that so many of these essential workers face, while also strengthening California’s economy and public safety. We expect the Biden-Harris administration to work with the State of California to identify the best way to ensure that the workers who make California agriculture possible are able to continue working in safety and dignity.”

Earlier versions of the legislation went much further but Caballero said the bill was carefully reworked with the intention of setting the groundwork for a pilot program that would be less likely to prompt legal challenges. 

“The work doesn’t stop here,” Caballero said. “The advocates, we need to get organized and go and lobby the federal government to join the state government and have a conversation about what’s possible.”

CA GOP takes a page from Democrats

Election workers collect ballots from voters turning them in at the Alameda County Ballot Drop Stop in Oakland on Nov. 8, 2022.
Election workers collect ballots from voters in Oakland on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

A practice often criticized by Republicans and long used by Democrats to boost voter turnout is now seeing wider acceptance among, interestingly enough, the California GOP.

As CalMatters’ Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal explains, “ballot harvesting” — in which a person voting by mail can authorize another person to return their ballot — is legal in 31 states, including California. A person may be paid to collect and return ballots as long as it is a flat rate and not based on the number of ballots returned. They must also not force anyone to vote a certain way.

The laws governing the process aren’t always clear and vary from state to state. And some Republicans say mail balloting is open to fraud, despite studies that find it doesn’t favor one party over the other.

  • Former President Donald Trump, during the state GOP convention in September: “We would win California in a general election if they didn’t have a rigged voting system, where they send out 22 million ballots. Nobody knows where they’re going, who they’re going to, who signs them, who delivers them, and who the hell counts ‘em? Nobody knows.” 

But attitudes toward collecting ballots are shifting, in part because of the GOP’s struggles to gain voters in California. The party, for instance, has not held a legislative majority since 1996,  and no Republican has been elected statewide office since 2006.

Now heading into the 2024 election, the state GOP is focusing its efforts in a grassroots campaign to recruit volunteers who will go door-to-door, build relationships with voters and later collect ballots from them. The impact of this initiative remains unclear — only 24% of eligible voters in California are registered Republicans. But for swing districts, it could be the strategy that turns the tide.

  • Jessica Millan Patterson, chairperson of the California Republican Party: “Watching what we’ve done and the impact that we’ve already had — and the role that ballot harvesting and early voting has played in that — has absolutely already made a difference.” 

Learn more about California Republicans’ embrace of “ballot harvesting” in Sameea’s story.

The dangers of artificial grass

Workers install artificial turf in the yard of a home in Los Angeles in 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

In the ongoing struggle between lawmakers and lawn makers, the governor handed both sides a win last week — signing one bill to ban businesses from irrigating ornamental lawns with potable water, and vetoing another that would have limited the use of synthetic lawns.

Gov. Newsom’s veto, CalMatters’ health care reporting intern Shreya Agrawal writes, came despite concerns from the bill’s supporters about the health risks of plastic grass. Newsom wrote in his veto message that while he supports the measure’s intent, it lacks specifics on what agency would enforce it.

Artificial turf includes a base that is typically made of crumb rubber constructed from used tires, plastic pellets or sand, as well as grass blades that are nylon or plastic. This grass usually contains what are known as “forever chemicals” — carcinogens that can disrupt hormones, cause developmental delays in children and lead to cell death in humans. The turf also traps and radiates heat for longer periods of time, and its microplastics can leach into groundwater.

  • Sylvia Earle, a marine life advocate and former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “These molecules are actually entering the food chains in the ocean, and they’re in our system, they’re in our blood, they’re in our muscles.”

Some synthetic lawn makers say they are addressing these concerns, and are working with local governments and states to ensure “their products contain no intentionally added” forever chemicals (though it is unlikely they can remove these chemicals altogether). For more on the health impacts of artificial turf, read Shreya’s story.

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Gov. Newsom rejected many bills sought by progressives as he finished his signing and veto decisions.  

It matters that California’s physician workforce is more representative of Latinos, writes Veronica Contreras, a family medicine doctor in Jurupa Valley.

Other things worth your time:

Some stories may require a subscription to read.

Pregnant and addicted: Homeless women see hope in street medicine // California Healthline

Here’s how much CA groundwater supplies rose after storms // San Francisco Chronicle

Poverty rates increased sharply in California in 2022 // The Sacramento Bee

PG&E’s plan to bury power lines faces opposition because of high rates // AP News

Credentialing commission could change how state tests teachers // EdSource

What CA schools must do to prep for opioid overdoses // The Mercury News

CA trio pleads guilty in $38M catalytic converter theft bust // San Francisco Chronicle

Mayor Breed wants SF voters to give police more power // San Francisco Chronicle

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Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an edtech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento...