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It’s full speed ahead for zero-emission cars in California.

The Golden State got the green light Wednesday to proceed with its nation-leading clean car program after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reinstated a waiver reaffirming its decades-old authority to set emission limits stricter than the federal government’s — setting the stage for California to develop auto emission rules to meet Gov. Gavin Newsom’s goal of eliminating new gas-powered cars by 2035

The move wasn’t a surprise — President Joe Biden had long hinted at plans to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to block California from setting its own tailpipe pollution standards for cars and light trucks.

And although California had continued to set its own standards even without the waiver, the stakes surrounding gasoline-powered cars have heightened in recent weeks. 

California is reeling from the highest gas prices in the nation — Wednesday’s average price was $5.58 per gallon, up 14 cents from the day before and an all-time high when not accounting for inflation — and oil industry groups are increasing pressure on Newsom and state lawmakers to ramp up the state’s oil production in the wake of a U.S. ban on imports from Russia.

  • Nearly half of Russian oil shipped into the U.S. last year ended up primarily in refineries in California, Washington and Hawaii, the Los Angeles Times reports.
  • The Western States Petroleum Association: “If the Newsom administration would approve the more than 1,000 permits for new production that have been waiting for months, and in some cases years, California could immediately increase supplies of affordable, reliable energy for ourselves and the West. … As we bring on more renewable and sustainable energy sources, we can acknowledge the fact that the affordable energy our industry provides will be needed for decades to come.”

Newsom, however, doubled down on clean energy production in his Tuesday night State of the State speech — “We need to be fighting polluters, not bolstering them … freeing us once and for all from the grasp of petro-dictators” — and in a Wednesday statement applauding the federal waiver.

  • Newsom: This “is a major victory for the environment, our economy and the health of families across the country that comes at a pivotal moment underscoring the need to end our reliance on fossil fuels. California looks forward to partnering with the Biden administration to make a zero-emission future a reality for all Americans.”

Newsom isn’t alone in urging the state to stay the course on transitioning away from fossil fuels.

  • The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to reject a proposal that would have allowed ExxonMobil to take a key step toward restarting three offshore oil wells shut down after a 2015 pipeline leak.
  • And former Gov. Jerry Brown, in an interview with the Associated Press, warned against increasing oil production to offset soaring gas prices: “Accelerating oil and gas in America would go against the climate goals, and climate is like war: If we don’t handle it, people are going to die and they’re going to be suffering. Not immediately, but over time.”

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 8,419,654 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 86,025 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 72,019,819 vaccine doses, and 74% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

1. Big bonuses for youth prison workers? 

A guard tower at the N. A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton on March 2, 2022. Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
A guard tower at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton on March 2, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Workers at the California Division of Juvenile Justice could receive bonuses of as much as $50,000 for staying on the job until the state’s youth prisons close next year under the terms of a deal Newsom’s administration is negotiating with at least six unions, CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons reports. If approved by state lawmakers, the bonus would appear to be among the largest California has ever offered to retain a group of workers. Data shows roughly 23% of 1,000 authorized positions inside the Division of Juvenile Justice’s institutions are vacant, Byrhonda reports.

  • All of the unions representing youth corrections employees in the bonus negotiations donated to Newsom’s anti-recall campaign last year. Of those, the largest contributor was the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the state’s powerful prison guards union, which gave $1.75 million.
  • The proposed pay bumps come less than a year after legislators approved — and Newsom signed into law — a raise for the prison guards union that the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office slammed for lacking “clear justification.”
  • The Newsom administration is also siding with the prison guards in challenging a federal judge’s order requiring them to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

In other youth corrections news: In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, at least 20 women alleged they were sexually assaulted by at least 10 staff members at Camp Scott, Los Angeles County’s all-girls juvenile detention facility, between 1996 and 2008, the Los Angeles Times reports.

2. Key state programs fall short

The offices of the Employment Development Department in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
The offices of the Employment Development Department in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Wednesday brought with it three more examples of government programs struggling to live up to their goals of helping low-income and vulnerable Californians:

  • Unemployment benefits: About 475,000 Californians are waiting up to 16 or 20 weeks for an interview with the state Employment Development Department to determine if they’re eligible for jobless benefits — and about 92,000 of them aren’t getting paid in the meantime, the Sacramento Bee reports. Another 383,000 people are receiving conditional payments — but could have to return the money if they’re ultimately found ineligible.
  • Food benefits: Understaffed county offices charged with running California’s food assistance program, CalFresh, are struggling to keep up with a pandemic surge in demand supercharged by expanded eligibility — even as the state delays plans to increase CalFresh’s budget and overhaul its 20-year-old funding formula, the Los Angeles Times reports. “The funding has not kept pace, which makes it extremely challenging to respond in a timely manner to these requests and have sufficient staffing,” said Kari Beuerman, social services director for Marin County.
  • Property tax savings for older and disabled homeowners: That was the goal of Prop. 19, which California voters narrowly approved in 2020 — but lengthy processing delays in Los Angeles County and elsewhere are forcing seniors to pay massive tax bills while waiting for their paperwork to be approved, the Los Angeles Times reports. “If I pay my taxes late, I have to pay a fine. But is there no responsibility or consequences on their end? There should be something to allow for people’s lives to not be so devastated financially,” said Rose Liebermann, a 71-year-old clinical social worker whose property tax bill nearly quadrupled.

3. CA braces for long COVID

A man, who did not want to be identified by name, swabs himself for COVID-19 at a testing site at the Long Beach Airport in Long Beach on Jan. 11, 2022. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
A man, who did not want to be identified, swabs himself for COVID-19 at a testing site in Long Beach on Jan. 11, 2022. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

From CalMatters health reporter Ana B. Ibarra: Even as California looks to turn the page on the pandemic, a Wednesday legislative hearing revealed the state will likely have to grapple with another type of COVID wave — debilitating long-term symptoms and disabling disease affecting people’s daily lives and ability to work.

  • Dr. Sindhu Mohandas, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, told state lawmakers: “I believe that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg. Symptoms of long COVID are keeping kids out of school and their parents out of work.”
  • Patients with long COVID have reported symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, headaches, muscle pains, sleep problems, dizziness and mood changes for weeks, months and in some cases years after infection.
  • Experts say it’s difficult to pinpoint how many people are struggling with long COVID, but some studies have estimated 1 in 4 COVID patients experience symptoms that last months.
  • The Mayo Clinic estimates 2.37 million Americans may be out of work at some point due to long COVID, said Dr. Gregg Vanichkachorn, medical director of the Mayo Clinic COVID Activity Rehabilitation Program.
  • Vanichkachorn: “I am worried we are going to be facing a tidal wave of patients unable to return to work for a prolonged period of time due to long COVID. … The challenge ahead of us with long COVID is more than just a health care challenge, but a challenge for our society and our economy as a whole.”

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Newsom ignored some of California’s knottiest problems during his fourth State of the State address.

Addressing California’s homeless crisis: Comprehensive, ongoing case management is instrumental in helping families on the brink of homelessness, argue Brittany Collier, Aneesa Motala and Olivia Ta, graduate students at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Stopping anti-Asian hate crimes: Two new bills in the state Legislature would help protect Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on public transit and in other public spaces, writes Camille Serrano of IGNITE.

Other things worth your time

Ukrainian mom killed identified as Silicon Valley tech firm accountant. // Mercury News

Returning money to California taxpayers may aid state budget. // Associated Press

S.F.’s vaccine mandate ends Friday, but many restaurants will still check cards. // San Francisco Chronicle

L.A. moves to lift vaccine verification mandate at indoor businesses. // Los Angeles Times

Judge declines to order sheriff to improve COVID-19 protections in San Diego County jails. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Two more LAPD officers fired over COVID-19 vaccination mandate, bringing total to three. // Daily News

High-ranking prosecutors allege Gascón demoted them for complaining about policies. // Daily News

Federal whistleblower died by suicide, California sheriff announces. // Sacramento Bee

Picking up an online purchase? O.C. to create ‘safe zones’ for the exchange. // Orange County Register

California is living in a domestic violence ‘nightmare.’ Could Seattle hold the solution? // Sacramento Bee

Thousands of SoCal grocery workers hope to avoid strike as contract with supermarkets expires. // ABC 7

Why layoff notices are back in some California school districts in a year of plenty. // EdSource

A wealth of cash in L.A. Unified but for how long? // Los Angeles Times

Police break up massive Crenshaw High fight, seize gun at other campus. // Los Angeles Times

Card room operators sue over tribal sports gambling initiative. // Sacramento Business Journal

Fresno lost $400K in a phishing scam and never told the public. // Fresno Bee

‘San Francisco is coming back.’ Mayor Breed hits optimistic note in annual address, but says work still needed in housing, public safety. // San Francisco Chronicle

San Diego makes little progress preserving affordable housing with money, new law. // San Diego Union-Tribune

UC Berkeley to relocate homeless community at People’s Park to make way for student housing. // San Francisco Chronicle

Mentally ill people in S.F. are cycling in and out of emergency rooms. One doctor shares stories about our broken system. // San Francisco Chronicle

Big Sur beaches are getting wider. Scientists say it’s the result of fire and flood. // San Francisco Chronicle

California tightens grip on PG&E, but wildfire risk persists. // Sacramento Bee

Genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida, California get OK from EPA. // USA TODAY

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...