Relief for California’s gas price pains
Maybe the governor called a special legislative session for the wrong type of gas price.
In the face of wallet-busting gasoline prices across the state last summer, Gov. Gavin Newsom convened a special session of the state Legislature in December to tax the “excessive” profits of California oil refiners. But since then, prices at the pump have fallen back to their still-high-but-not-uncharacteristically-so California average, according to AAA.
In the meantime, Californians are getting hammered with the soaring cost of natural gas. Wholesale prices for the home-heating, water-boiling, climate-warming commodity rose 63% since October, even while prices nationwide were cut in half, Bloomberg reports.
And even that vertiginous average conceals much higher spikes in some locales.
- Andra Bard, a Santa Monica resident, whose typical bill of $68 clocked in at $330 last month: “It’s just shocking…This can’t be sustainable.”
But lower bills may be on the way.
With some of the supply bottlenecks easing up, utilities are already promising a steep reduction in prices.
And today, the state’s Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to offer Californians some financial relief by speeding up the rollout of an annual bill-reducing credit.
The California Climate Credit, meant to compensate households for higher energy bills that result from the state’s emission reducing cap-and-trade program, had been scheduled to go out in April from the natural gas companies. But the utility commission’s public advocate sought an emergency order to get the money out this month, to help cover astronomically high January bills.
Now approved, the credit is expected to give customers roughly $50 each. Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric and SoCal Gas all supported the move. So did state Senate Republicans, who wrote the CPUC on Monday urging them to send out the credit “as soon as possible.”
Combined with a similar credit on electricity bills, the commission estimates a total of $1.3 billion in relief.
- Commission President Alice Reynolds: “Natural gas prices throughout the West have risen to alarming levels this winter. Advancing the California Climate Credit will provide immediate relief to California families struggling to pay their bills while we examine this critical issue and explore longer-term solutions to volatile natural gas prices.”
The utilities commission is set for a broader discussion on natural gas prices next Tuesday.
Those prices began their eye-watering ascent along the West Coast in December. Though some consumer advocates are calling for an investigation into possible market manipulation, analysts at the federal Energy Information Administration laid the blame on that familiar duo, supply and demand.
- High demand: Unusually cold weather has pushed Californians to throttle their thermostats.
- Low supply: Infrastructure repairs in Texas and high gasoline demand in Canada resulted in fewer imports to California, which gets almost 90% of its natural gas from out of state. Lower-than-normal stockpiles in Northern California reduced the available slack in the system.
High natural gas prices cast painful economic ripples: Much of the power that California uses during peak hours come from gas-powered plants. That means higher natural gas prices might also be spilling over onto your electricity bill. In a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, six in ten Californians say that recent price increases have caused financial hardship.
Meanwhile, with the Legislature still slowly considering his still-to-be-fleshed-out oil tax proposal, Newsom continued his war of words with major oil companies this week.
According to record-breaking earnings reports released on Tuesday, last year unleashed a geyser of cash for the nation’s oil giants. That prompted a predictable excoriation from the governor.
- Newsom: “While Californians were being ripped off at the pump last year, Big Oil’s bottom line ballooned to levels never seen before in history.”
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Other Stories You Should Know
1 Concealed carry, round 2
From CalMatters’ politics reporter Alexei Koseff:
One of the most stunning legislative developments of last year came on the final night of the session into the wee hours of Sept. 1, when a bill to update California’s concealed carry rules to comply with a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling failed on the Assembly floor by a single vote.
So Gov. Gavin Newsom and other supporters of the policy are trying again — and thanks to a strategic shift, they insist this time will be different.
Despite long-standing support in the Legislature for gun control measures, Democratic infighting doomed last year’s proposal, which would have created a framework of broad gun-free zones in public areas such as playgrounds, hospitals and stadiums, where no one would be legally allowed to bring a firearm.
Lacking a legislative response to the Supreme Court decision, county sheriffs have been under enormous pressure to issue concealed carry permits to all legally qualified applicants. They’ve been flooded with thousands of new applications from people who no longer have to show “good cause,” a highly limiting requirement the court deemed unconstitutional, though other eligibility criteria remain.
In the wake of the deadly spurt of mass shootings in California late last month, Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta and key legislators on Wednesday reiterated their commitment to passing the revised concealed carry scheme this year.
- Newsom: “There’s no question about that…I will be signing this legislation.”
His confidence is due in part to a procedural technicality that will make it easier to get the measure through the Legislature: Last year’s bill carried an “urgency clause,” which would have allowed it to take effect immediately but also necessitated a two-thirds vote. Without that provision, the follow-up needs only a simple majority for approval.
State Sen. Anthony Portantino, the Glendale Democrat who introduced both bills, said he did not add an urgency clause to this year’s version, Senate Bill 2, because he wanted to take time to monitor how other states are reacting to the Supreme Court ruling. A new law adopted by New York last year that is similar to his proposal, for example, is already facing a legal challenge.
- Portantino: “We want the ability to be nimble to make sure that whatever we send to Gov. Newsom is the strongest bill possible but also the most constitutionally sound bill.”
He left open the possibility of adding an urgency clause later on, if they develop an approach that two-thirds of lawmakers can get behind. Otherwise, the soonest that California could have new rules in place is next January, when bills passed this year would generally take effect.
That leaves 11 more months for the state’s concealed carry system to undergo even more radical shifts. Already, the notoriously strict San Francisco has issued its first permit in years.
2 Arambula’s gambit
As their first order of business this legislative session, Assembly Democrats codified a succession plan for Salinas Democrat Robert Rivas to take the job of Speaker Anthony Rendon on June 30, thus bringing to a merciful close months of heated backroom haggling, campaign trail jockeying, and festering hurt feelings.
Then, last week, Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, a Fresno Democrat, announced that he had his eyes on the speaker’s office, calling the whole arrangement into question.
Arambula has told reporters that he was encouraged to run by other members dissatisfied with the notion of a Rivas speakership. But he’s declined to say who those people are and, so far, no lawmakers have publicly raised their hand.
I sat down with Arambula on Wednesday to ask him why, after his fellow Democrats came to a hard-fought consensus, he is reopening a violent tear in the caucus.
He disputed the premise. When the Assembly voted unanimously to approve the speakership transition, it was by an all-at-once voice vote — not a roll call that required each member to be counted.
- Arambula: “The only member I’m aware of who has gotten 41 individual votes is Speaker Rendon.”
Arambula is a relative moderate compared to Rivas, but he said his aspiration to undo Rivas’ succession had little to do with policy. In the face of an upcoming budget deficit, he said that he was in a better position to unify Democrats riven by nearly a year of intraparty fighting.
- Arambula: “I don’t think Kevin de León is the right person to fix the racial tensions that we have in L.A. Nor should someone who has brought toxicity be somebody who can build consensus for us.”
For his part, Rendon doesn’t seem as concerned about lingering tensions from the speakership fight. “Democracy is exceptionally messy,” he told CapRadio. “That’s the nature of it.”
3 Will CalAIM hit its mark?
CalAIM — the top-to-bottom overhaul of how the state delivers Medi-Cal, the health insurance system for low-income Californians — has some very high hopes: Easy access to a wide range of services under one roof. A seamless payment system bridging impenetrable health care bureaucracies. A full embrace of “whole person care” — integrated physical and mental health for each user.
All of that has been promised as part of CalAIM’s five-year roll out. But one year in, things are looking shaky, write CalMatters health reporters Jocelyn Wiener and Kristen Hwang.
Facing workforce shortages and the possibility of state budget cuts, mental health policy experts and advocates say they are worried that CalAIM may be doomed to miss its mark.
- Michelle Cabrera, executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association: CalAIM is “an uber-ambitious reform agenda that’s sitting on top of a system that’s really been through the storm.”
Trying to build a new mental health care delivery system amid a deep and ongoing shortage of mental health workers is no easy task. As Jocelyn has reported before, counties, nonprofit providers and commercial health plans are all scrambling to hire psychologists, psychiatrists and clinical social workers.
Meanwhile, demand for their services appears to be as high as it’s ever been. That could be because mental anguish is up society-wide. Or as the Los Angeles Times notes, maybe it’s because more people are getting better at asking for help.
- Harvard University sociologist Ronald Kessler: “The pandemic helped us realize that a very high prevalence of mental disorders has been there all along, and that many people have been suffering in silence.”
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The ceaseless skirmishing over rules governing personal injury lawsuits, known as the “tort wars,” is heating up.
A California law helping workers file labor code violations often hurts employees and employers alike and needs to be changed by a 2024 ballot measure, argues Jennifer Barrera, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce.
Other things worth your time
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How an L.A. grifter ripped off his friends and got rich with weed scams // Los Angeles Times
Newsom calls out Fresno D.A. over Selma officer’s killing // Fox26
Report: Refineries responsible for big chemical dump into S.F. bay // San Francisco Examiner
State investigating pay spikes, hiring practices at OC health plan for poor // Voice of OC
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Tesla driver charged with attempted murder after plunging with family off cliff // NBC News
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California county to pay $32M in child welfare settlement // Associated Press
Santa Monica’s GoodRx fined for sharing health data with Facebook and Google // Axios
Alameda County DA reopening police shooting investigations // San Francisco Chronicle
Opinion: Sen. Dianne Feinstein should not seek reelection // Los Angeles Times
Opinion: SF police took 15 hours to respond to a burglary at a bar // San Francisco Chronicle