In summary

Gov. Newsom unveiled an $11 billion plan to help those struggling with the nation’s highest gas prices, including the California gas tax.

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Buckle your seatbelts, Californians — elected officials’ battle over the best way to put money back in your pockets just revved up.

After weeks of buildup, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday unveiled an $11 billion plan to help Californians staggering under the nation’s highest gas prices and the skyrocketing cost of living — launching what will likely be intense negotiations with state lawmakers as they gear up for the 2022 elections and debate how to handle California’s massive budget surplus.

As CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports, Newsom’s proposal includes:

  • A $400 debit card per registered vehicle, capped at two cars per person (including electric and leased). The first payments could go out as soon as July.
  • $750 million in grants to encourage public transit agencies to offer Californians three months of free rides.
  • As much as $600 million to pause part of the diesel sales tax for one year.
  • And $523 million to suspend July’s scheduled increase to California’s gas and diesel excise tax — as originally proposed in Newsom’s January budget blueprint.

Interestingly, the plan aligns Newsom more with Republican lawmakers and a group of moderate Democrats than it does with the Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate.

  • Like Newsom, Republicans want to suspend California’s gas excise tax: They plan to force another vote on the issue today after Democrats last week shot down their bill to pause the tax for six months.
  • And Newsom’s plan would give money even to the state’s wealthiest residents, similar to a proposal moderate Democrats and one independent floated last week of sending $400 to every California taxpayer.

But the governor’s idea had a lukewarm reception from Democratic legislative leaders, who oppose tinkering with the gas tax and last week announced a proposal they said was targeted at the state’s neediest families: $200 payments to taxpayers and dependents in households earning less than $250,000.

Underlying the debate is the reality, made clear in a Public Policy Institute of California poll released late Wednesday night, that many Californians are struggling: 35% said recent price increases have caused serious financial hardship in their households, a figure that rose to 47% among lower-income residents. And 41% of lower-income residents said they were very concerned about not having enough money to cover their housing costs.

  • Speaking of housing costs: Wednesday’s newsletter included incorrect dates. The state’s rent relief application deadline is March 31 and landlords can move to evict tenants starting April 1.

One last bit of financial news: Keely Bosler, who leads the state Department of Finance and serves as the governor’s chief fiscal policy advisor, will step down after this year’s budget is finished in June. She is the latest high-ranking official to depart Newsom’s administration; his legislative director left last week.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 8,471,120 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 87,590 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 72,522,321 vaccine doses, and 74.4% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

1. Lots of changes at the CSU

Jolene Koester will serve as the interim CSU chancellor. Image courtesy of California State University
Jolene Koester will serve as the interim CSU chancellor. Photo courtesy of California State University

From CalMatters higher-education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn: A new interim chancellor, officially ditching the SAT, approving an external investigation into what went down at Fresno State: This week’s meeting of the California State University Board of Trustees thrust the system onto a path of reckoning with its past while eyeing a more stable and equitable future for its 23 campuses and 477,000 students.

  • On Wednesday, the board hired Jolene Koester, a former Cal State Northridge president, as interim chancellor. Koester, 74, will on May 1 assume the post vacated by Joseph Castro, who resigned in February following a USA Today exposé into his mishandling of sexual harassment allegations against a senior colleague while president of Fresno State. Koester is expected to hold the position for 12 months while the board searches for a permanent chancellor — a job she says she doesn’t want. I’m “150% committed” to the interim position, she told Mikhail, “and then it will be time to let someone else build and grow the system with all of its wonder after me.” Koester also expressed “strong empathy for individuals who were so negatively affected by what took place” and “a strong sense of the importance to make things right.”
  • Also Wednesday, CSU joined the University of California in permanently ditching use of the SAT and ACT in undergraduate admissions decisions. California is now the only state whose public universities don’t consider test scores in undergraduate admissions, according to the nonprofit FairTest
  • On Tuesday, the trustees voted to hire a law firm to examine how CSU administrators handled the allegations at Fresno State broadening the scope of an investigation that in a previous draft was initially limited to campus officials. That could increase scrutiny on former Chancellor Timothy White, who approved a sizable settlement for Frank Lamas, the Fresno State administrator accused of sexual misconduct.
  • Meanwhile, another law firm will assess Title IX policies — which protect students and employees from sexual discrimination — at all 23 campuses and the chancellor’s office.
  • The CSU has also halted a controversial program that paid millions to executives, including Castro and White, after they left their posts.

In other higher-education news: California law and NCAA rules now allow student athletes to earn money from sponsorship deals — prompting students to call for financial training to help them understand the contracts companies are offering them, Zaeem Shaikh reports for CalMatters’ College Journalism Network.

2. Sacramento City schools close amid strike

Staff and teachers form a picket line outside C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento on March 23, 2022. Photo by Andrew Nixon, CapRadio
Staff and teachers form a picket line outside C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento on March 23, 2022. Photo by Andrew Nixon, CapRadio

Campuses in Sacramento City Unified School District closed Wednesday as thousands of employees went on strike over wages, pandemic policies and staff shortages. The strike, which followed several days of intense negotiations between unions and the district, disrupted classes and extracurricular activities for 40,000 students even as some services — including child care, grab-and-go meals and COVID testing and vaccinations — remained available. Schools will remain closed for the duration of the strike, which currently has no end date. 

Also Wednesday, Los Angeles Unified School District lifted its mask mandate for students and staff, though kids in early education centers and other programs are still required to wear face coverings. And the Los Angeles City Council got one step closer to rolling back its vaccination requirement for patrons of many indoor businesses, even as the city announced it had fired 24 employees as of last week for failing to comply with its inoculation mandate.

3. CA braces for long COVID inequities

Angela Vázquez at home in Mt. Washington on March 15, 2022. Vázquez has been suffering from symptoms of long COVID for almost two years. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters
Angela Vázquez, who has suffered from long COVID symptoms for almost two years, at home in Los Angeles on March 15, 2022. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

As many as 2 million Californians may have long COVID — a mysterious, debilitating and difficult-to-diagnose compilation of post-infection problems — based on some studies’ estimates that more than one in four COVID patients experience months-long symptoms, CalMatters’ Ana B. Ibarra reports. Experts fear the toll will be especially harsh for Latinos, African Americans and low-income residents, who have already been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic and often have less access to quality health care.

  • Of the at least 20 California medical centers with specialty post-COVID programs — which are already struggling to meet demand — nearly all are in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. Only one is in the Central Valley, and none are in the San Joaquin Valley.
  • Long COVID patients on Medi-Cal — the state’s health insurance program for the poor — or who are uninsured may struggle to find proper care and to pay for expensive tests, experts say.
  • And it may get harder for uninsured Californians to protect themselves against COVID in the first place as the Biden administration winds down federal reimbursement programs for uninsured patients. COVID test reimbursements at many locations ended Tuesday — some San Joaquin County sites are now charging uninsured people $100 per test. Vaccine reimbursements end April 5.

In related news: Ambulance providers are urging Newsom and state lawmakers to increase reimbursement rates for Medi-Cal patients, pointing out that only four states pay less than California’s $111.48 per ride. Lower rates mean lower wages for ambulance workers, longer wait times for vulnerable patients and higher costs for privately insured patients, ambulance companies told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Our emergency medical services system is on life support,” said ambulance owner Melissa Harris.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s judicial hierarchy wasted millions of dollars on an inoperable data system and a futile public records case.

California should embrace telework for state employees: Instead, departments are ordering workers back to the office by April 1 without identifying any operational need for the mandate, argues Cameron Knudson, president of Professional Engineers in California Government.

Concerns about State Bar’s equity efforts are unfounded: Current proposals to broaden access to legal services are predicated on sound regulatory frameworks that keep the public protected, writes Leah Wilson, executive director of the State Bar of California.

Other things worth your time

Proposed law would preserve state records for 2 years. // Sacramento Bee

‘Fighting them all the way’: Santa Clara County is suing more businesses over not paying COVID fines. // Mercury News

S.F. residents, like many in California, face water-rate hike — but there’s one way to avoid a bigger bill. // San Francisco Chronicle

Thousands of California student loan borrowers will struggle when pause ends. // Sacramento Bee

Sledgehammer-wielding burglars hit Beverly Hills jeweler for $5 million in valuables in brazen daytime heist. // Los Angeles Times

California man accused in Capitol riot granted asylum in Belarus. // New York Times

Former Vallejo police lieutenant testifies he started badge-bending practice at Concord PD. // Vallejo Sun

Watchdog IDs 41 deputies allegedly in gang-like groups. // Los Angeles Times

Firearms sales by LAPD captain, LASD deputy draw federal scrutiny. // Los Angeles Times

USC pulls out of education-school rankings, citing data errors. // Wall Street Journal

3rd Biden nominee confirmed to San Diego federal court. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Check out California school enrollment over two decades. // EdSource

San Diego Unified’s new superintendent will make $375K a year. // San Diego Union-Tribune

School board hits reset button: First meeting with new members after contentious recall. // San Francisco Chronicle

A year after Echo Park Lake encampment removal, few are in permanent housing, report finds. // Los Angeles Times

Test strips for fentanyl, supervised injection sites, might come to California. // Orange County Register

Palo Alto moves forward with plan to preserve dozens of homes to keep lot-splitting away. // Mercury News

Transamerica Pyramid is getting a $250 million redesign, the biggest in its 50-year history. // San Francisco Chronicle

I lost my home to the Tubbs Fire. Five years later, I still don’t know if it’s safe to rebuild. // San Francisco Chronicle

The deceptively simple plan to replenish California’s groundwater. // National Geographic

Temperature records set as heat wave hits California. // Associated Press

Whales entangled in fishing gear could prompt early end to Dungeness crab season. // San Francisco Chronicle

The troubled history and promising future of winemaking in California. // KCET

California sports betting: Competition or opportunity for Nevada? // Nevada Independent

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...