California Inc.: Why California's gasoline costs more

Welcome to California Inc., the weekly newsletter of the L.A. Times Business Section.

I'm Business columnist David Lazarus, and here's a rundown of upcoming stories this week and the highlights of last week.

Looking Ahead

Disney tax: In a hearing Tuesday, the Anaheim City Council will evaluate a little-known pact that for years has spared Walt Disney Co. from paying entertainment tax on its amusement parks. The accord may be extended for three decades if the entertainment giant agrees to invest at least $1 billion in its resort properties in the coming years. Critics say Disney is getting a special break that could put residents at risk.

Water use: The California Department of Food and Agriculture will hear testimony Tuesday about a controversial new law that requires growers to report how much water they pump from wells. Some well owners worry that the law will lead to limits on water consumption.

Interest rates: Economists will be looking for clues about changes in interest rates Wednesday when the Federal Reserve releases minutes of its June 16-17 meetings. Policymakers have been indicating that an increase in the benchmark federal funds rate is coming, and many experts think it probably will arrive in September.

Comic-Con: North America's biggest pop-culture convention kicks off with a preview night Wednesday at the San Diego Convention Center, followed by four full days of shows and exhibits. This year's Comic-Con will feature a first look at "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" along with sneak-peek screenings of TV pilots for such shows as "Supergirl" and "Lucifer."

Space station: A House committee Friday will look into the status of the International Space Station in light of the explosion of an unmanned SpaceX rocket bringing supplies to the orbiting facility. The failure has raised questions about how long NASA can keep research scientists at the space station; it also has led Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in Hawthorne to halt work temporarily on $7 billion worth of launch orders.

'Minions' debuts: The spinoff of Universal's hugely successful "Despicable Me" franchise hits theaters Friday. "Minions" was first scheduled to premiere in December, but was delayed to make room for a massive rollout of toys and other products. The movie got an early release overseas and immediately jumped to No. 1 in box office in Britain.

The Agenda

Monday’s Business Section visits the gas pump. California gasoline prices tend to be among the highest in the nation, partly because the state’s cleaner-burning gasoline formula costs more to refine. But some consumer advocates and politicians say high prices at the pump are mainly the result of manipulation by oil refiners.

Business section

Story Lines

Here are some of the other stories that ran in The Times Business section in recent days that we're continuing to follow:

Health Net purchase: Woodland Hills insurer Health Net Inc. has agreed to be acquired for $6.8 billion in cash and stock by a St. Louis rival Centene Corp. in what may be the start of an industrywide merger wave. Some analysts predicted that the bid for Health Net, California's fourth-largest health insurer, could draw a competing offer from industry leader UnitedHealth Group Inc.

Stocks post gains: World financial markets ended the first six months this year amid the uncomfortably familiar sound of bubbles popping: debt bubbles in Greece and Puerto Rico and a potential stock bubble in China. Still, U.S. stocks overall managed to grind out small gains in the half, extending the six-year bull market. The 30-stock Dow lost 1.1%, but broader U.S. indexes rose.

Airline investigation: Packed planes and rising fares have pushed up airline profits — along with costs for cramped and harried travelers. Federal investigators are now looking into whether airlines planned it that way. The Justice Department's antitrust division is looking into whether some airlines engaged in "unlawful coordination" to keep planes full by limiting the number of seats.

Miss USA: Donald Trump's troubled Miss USA pageant has found a new TV home on cable network Reelz, available in 70 million homes. The channel is picking up the July 12 event after NBC and Univision dropped it in response to Trump's inflammatory comments about Mexican immigrants. Trump sued Univision, saying its decision was a politically motivated attempt to squelch free speech.

Intern case: A closely watched case challenging the legality of unpaid Hollywood internship programs has been dealt a major blow. A federal appeals panel in New York vacated a federal judge's 2013 ruling, which had favored uncompensated workers on a Fox Searchlight Pictures film. Two interns who worked on "Black Swan" alleged in a 2011 lawsuit that the company violated minimum wage laws.

Whole Foods: A week after a New York City investigation found that Whole Foods Market Inc. stores were overcharging for prepackaged products, the company's co-chief executives admitted pricing mistakes were made. A year ago, the Austin, Texas, grocer agreed to pay nearly $800,000 in penalties for overcharging in California stores.

What We're Reading

And some recent stories from other publications that caught our eye:

Lyft steps up: New York magazine explores Lyft's efforts to compete with rival ride-sharing service Uber. How can Lyft step up its game? "To better compete, Lyft is adding new services, refining its image, trying to position itself as the more lovable brand for riders and drivers," the magazine says.

Anschutz profile: Pacific Standard looks at reclusive billionaire Philip Anschutz and his long-standing ability to churn wealth out of real estate -- from oil wells and railroads to sports arenas and cattle ranches. His Anschutz Entertainment Group owns the L.A. Kings hockey team and a minority stake in the Lakers. It also owns Staples Center.

Airbnb debate: The debate continues: Is Airbnb the next phase of hospitality or the end of housing as we know it? The website Stratechery says that an increasing number of cities have concluded that Airbnb "is destroying them by incentivizing landlords to remove residences from the rental market and instead offer them full-time on Airbnb."

Casio watch: Japanese watchmaker Casio isn't going to just stand aside as Apple and Google eat its lunch. The company will debut what it says is a smarter watch next year, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We are trying to bring our smartwatch to a level of watch perfection: a device that won't break easily, is simple to put on and feels good," says Casio CEO Kazuhiro Kashio.

Changing times: Some nifty graphic work from Bloomberg Business, which produced charts showing how social change follows a pattern. Typically, a few pioneer states get out front and then a key event — often a court decision or a grassroots campaign — triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law. Bloomberg tracks such evolution for six big issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana.

Rinse cycle: The thorny issue of how best to load the dishwasher, it turns out, has high stakes for industry and the environment, the Wall Street Journal reports. For example, energy-saving dishwashers use less water, and "that heightens tensions about how much pre-rinsing is needed," the report noted.

Today's Cool Consumer Tip

Stuck on hold trying to reach a business? Can’t break through the automated switchboard to reach a living, breathing service rep? Here's the website for you: You enter a company name and up comes the most reliable number for reaching an honest-to-goodness person. That may not necessarily resolve your issue, but it's better than being stranded in the telecom cold.

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Until next time, I'll see you in the Business section.

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