The clock is ticking for California lawmakers deciding the state’s gas relief plan
Relief from sky-high gas prices is coming “soon.” Whether through predictions of stabilizing fuel prices or promises of government rebates, it’s a message Californians have been hearing for months.
Still, the costs of filling up have failed to let up. Nationally, drivers are paying an average $4.97 per gallon. Californians are shelling out $6.38 per gallon on average with North Coast and North Bay residents paying even higher prices.
Unsurprisingly, state lawmakers are under pressure to act, especially as a scheduled bump to the state excise tax—which will add almost 3 cents per gallon at the pump—is set to kick in July 1.
On Monday, California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced the formation of a Select Committee on Gasoline Supply and Pricing to both investigate what’s beyond ever-climbing fuel costs, including potential oil industry profiteering, and identify solutions.
The new committee is in line with what Severin Borenstein of UC-Berkeley’s Energy Institute called a necessary step when we spoke on the issue in May, something he noted was effective in the aftermath of California’s early 2000s electricity crisis.
However, this news is unlikely to provide short-term relief to motorists struggling daily to fill their tanks. The committee’s timeline is unclear, especially as lawmakers’ monthlong summer recess, which also starts July 1, approaches.
In the meantime, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators have been haggling over various temporary but more immediate fuel assistance proposals since March.
Last week, lawmakers passed a $300 billion placeholder budget while they continue to resolve final sticking points, including negotiations over gas rebates. (The new fiscal year starts at the beginning of July, but it could take longer to hammer out some remaining details of how exactly to spend the state’s more than $97 billion surplus.)
The governor’s plan would send out about $11.5 billion in rebates via payments of up to $800 per registered vehicle owner. For those without cars, $750 million would go towards paying public transit fees.
Newsom’s plan has faced criticism for failing to prioritize poorer consumers.
For their part, Democrats in the legislature have proposed $8 billion in relief by sending $200 to low and middle-income Californians, with an added $200 for each dependent.
Republicans, on the other hand, have been critical of these proposals and their slow pace, calling instead for a suspension of gas taxes.
The right wing of the party isn’t completely alone on this. The governor at one point suggested suspending this summer’s gas tax hike, and Friday, a group of mostly Democratic assembly members, including Cecilia Aguiar-Curry who represents parts of Sonoma County and Napa and Lake counties, did the same, asking that it be postponed until next year.
Of course, any suspension of taxes comes with questions about how to mitigate lost infrastructure funding (though the budget surplus could help) and how to ensure benefits are passed primarily to consumers and not just oil companies.
Separately, President Joe Biden announced Monday he’ll likely decide on a federal gas tax “holiday” by the end of this week.
Kayla Kitson, policy analyst for the California Budget & Policy Center, who favors the legislature’s plan, noted that the governor’s proposal (as well as gas tax suspensions) will provide aid to those who may not be in need while allowing some of those who don’t own cars to fall through the cracks.
“We know gas prices are an issue for folks. We also know that Californians are struggling with all sorts of needs,” Kitson told me. “Ultimately it makes more sense to provide relief based on who needs it most.”
Indeed, Californians in households without vehicles are more than twice as likely to struggle meeting basic needs, according to the center’s data. Fuel costs also certainly affect prices far beyond just those at the pump.
Rising costs across the board have become untenable for many Californians, especially low-income communities. An April analysis showed that more than half of California households making less than $50,000 are having trouble paying for basic expenses, with Black and Latinx residents suffering disproportionately.
So, while the decision before policymakers requires careful consideration, they will need to act soon.
As the group of California lawmakers warned in their letter to leaders Friday, “The cost of doing nothing is unacceptable—Californians will see a State Legislature unconcerned with their pain and out of touch.“
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“In Your Corner” Columnist, The Press Democrat
Born and raised in Northern California, I'm dedicated to getting to know all its facets and helping track down the answers to tough questions. I want to use my experience as a journalist and an investigator to shine a light on local systems, policies and practices so residents have the information they need to advocate for the changes they want to see. I’m passionate about centering the many voices in the communities I cover, and I want readers to guide my work.