California Politics: Newsom’s war on oil continues

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference in Sacramento on March 13, 2019.
(Getty Images)

I’m here to remind you that the leaked audio of a conversation between Los Angeles City Council members is not the only drama in California politics right now, though it’s the most intriguing.

Instead I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to draw attention to the ongoing fight between Gov. Gavin Newsom and big oil.

As the leader of a Democratic state in a country with a Democratic president, Newsom is short on natural foils.

Donald Trump isn’t the same existential threat to California as he was in the White House. The California Legislature is dominated by Democrats, who peacefully coexist with the governor in public and are careful to air their annoyances with him in less attributable ways.

While Larry Elder gave Newsom a GOP boogeyman to drum up interest in the recall, his reelection opponent, Republican lawmaker Brian Dahle, is decidedly less scary to the average liberal voter.

So Newsom turned outside California and successfully drew a contrast between himself and GOP governors, primarily Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but also Texas’ commander-in-chief Greg Abbott. And like many of Newsom’s political maneuvers, it makes a lot of sense for a California governor to compare his state’s policies on abortion, LGBTQ rights and gun control to far more conservatives places.


Those contrasts make Newsom the white knight of a Democratic party that as he says, is “getting crushed” by Republicans. National media outlets sprang to cover Newsom’s fight with DeSantis, the conflict his comments created between him and his national party and speculation about his presidential ambitions.

Then his battle with DeSantis, and ads he aired in Florida, lured in another big foe: Western States Petroleum Assn.

Though Newsom had largely remained on the sidelines as lawmakers battled the powerful industry and lost during his first term, the governor joined the fight after the association of oil companies responded with their own advertisements telling Floridians that he was to blame for California’s highest in-the-nation gasoline prices.

That scuffle rapidly evolved from the passage of a handful of tough climate laws to the governor’s announcement of a special legislative session in December to pass a tax on excessive oil company profits.

And once again, it’s good politics for Newsom to take on the industry as Californians struggle to pay the cost of gasoline and the effects of climate change are felt all over the state.

“That’s the fight of our time,” said a source working in the state Legislature, who declined to be named out of concern that it could hurt their relationship with the governor. “Salem had witches and we have WSPA.”


A special announcement

Newsom’s office sent out a press release on Sept. 30 calling on lawmakers to pass “a windfall tax on oil companies that would go directly back to California taxpayers.”

At the time, the governor’s team said though crude oil prices were down, oil companies were still raising prices at the pump. His team disregarded the idea that refinery maintenance issues, hurricane disruptions, or state taxes were the only causes of the increase.

The announcement raised at least one major question: How can the Legislature pass any tax if it isn’t in session?

That question lingered until Newsom told reporters at an Oct. 7. press conference that he would call a special session to pass a tax on excessive oil company profits. The governor said he would begin the special session when lawmakers return to start the regular session on Dec. 5, one month after the November election.

“They can get away with it,” Newsom said of oil companies. “Hundreds of millions of dollars a week they’re putting in their pockets, lining their pockets at your expense, and then polluting this planet and leaving us all the external realities and costs associated with that.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) responded saying they looked forward to examining the governor’s “detailed proposal when we receive it.”

Neither house has received that plan yet and it’s unclear just how Newsom’s proposal will work.

The windfall tax comes just a few months after he encouraged lawmakers in August to pass a series of bills to harden the state’s climate change laws, which were opposed by the oil industry.

Though Newsom had promised in private to have legislators’ backs if they passed the bills, he ruffled feathers in September when he took credit for the legislation and suggested Democrats in his state were beholden to oil.

“I had to jam my own Democratic Legislature in the last few weeks of our session to get these four critical, of the 40 climate bills, done,” he said in New York during Climate Week. “Had I not done that, all those special interests would have prevailed again to deny and delay.”

Newsom heaped praise on lawmakers at an event the next day, saying he “couldn’t be more proud of my Legislature.”

Lawmakers could feel skittish about a windfall tax if oil companies pass along that tax, or say they will, to consumers by raising gasoline prices. Any legislative package would likely include some kind of provision to try to prevent that from happening.

The messaging around the tax is also a sensitive topic and critical to any proposal Newsom delivers to lawmakers.

Newsom’s office has cast the tax as an effort “to put windfall profits of oil companies back in taxpayers’ pockets.” Republicans in the Legislature are seeking to brand it as simply a new gas tax and are arguing that it won’t result in any cost savings for Californians.

At the same time, the oil industry is collecting signatures for a referendum on SB 1137, one of the bills lawmakers passed in August to create buffer zones between new oil and gas wells and neighborhoods. Led by the California Independent Petroleum Assn., the industry is hoping to pause the law from taking effect and instead ask voters to overturn it on the 2024 ballot. The industry is representing the signature gathering effort as a way to lower gas prices.

The governor’s team hopes to pass a windfall tax quickly after the special session begins in December. Dozens of lawmakers will take the oath of office for the first time on the same day it starts and a fight with the oil industry will serve as an early litmus test of the new body.

Standing behind and against abortion rights

While polls show the ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights into California’s Constitution is coasting to a victory, that hasn’t stopped big-name donors from opening their checkbooks in support.

This week, the California Nurses Assn.’s political committee gave $500,000 to Senate President Toni Atkins’ ballot measure committee supporting Proposition 1, while Kaiser Permanente contributed $250,000.

The proponents of the ballot measure raised nearly $9 million by the latest filing period that ended Sept. 24, but donations have been pouring in ever since. Opposing campaigns raised nearly $1 million by the same filing deadline, with more recent donations including $20,000 from gubernatorial candidate Dahle’s ballot measure committee this month.

Proposition 1 was placed on the November ballot by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature in response to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that protected abortion rights nationwide.

Among the donating supporters is singer and actress Barbra Streisand, who gave $5,000 toward the measure this month, and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, who each donated $250,000 on Sept. 30.

California philanthropists have also dug deep in recent weeks, with Patty Quillin, the wife of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, contributing $450,000 and Democratic mega-donor Susie Tompkins Buell adding $100,000.

“It’s not about raising a bunch of money that we don’t need,” said Molly Weedn, a spokesperson for the Yes on Proposition 1 campaign. “It’s about raising money to ensure we can communicate with communities most impacted if there were to be restrictions or a ban on abortion in the future.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom is using at least $2 million of his own campaign funds to air ads in support of Proposition 1 while Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis donated $100,000.

The single largest donation for Prop. 1 was from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which gave $5 million on Sept. 16.

“It is most important to the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria that all women, particularly Indigenous women and all low-income and women of color, continue to have sovereign rights over their bodies and access to all existing healthcare available to them,” said Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris in a statement.

A fact check on crime

Crime has become quite trendy on the campaign trail. Some of the data indicate that’s for good reason.

The California Department of Justice’s 2021 crime report showed that violent crime increased 6.7% from the year before, homicides ticked up 9.1% and the rape rate rose by 8.6%.

The state’s property crime similarly increased, though modestly, by 3%, and car theft jumped by 8.2%. The numbers have turned into a political talking point in the race for California’s top cop.

Republican defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman has routinely blasted Democratic incumbent Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta for his relative lack of law enforcement experience and for supporting more progressive criminal justice reform policies as a state lawmaker.

Hochman said Bonta has contributed to a “spiral of lawlessness,” and that the state needs a leader at the Department of Justice who will “bring safety and security back to California.”

Bonta said the data tell another story.

Some crime has increased, Bonta said, and it’s important to respond to those trends and ensure people feel safe.

But, he added, “when you pull the camera back, we are still at one of the lowest levels of crime in the history of California,” he said.

California’s violent crime rate peaked in 1992, according to the 2021 crime report. Property crime remains relatively low, and far below its 1980 historical high.

Bonta said it’s “important to stick to the data” and “not to fear monger or to use anecdote and example and generalize.”

But facts don’t always outweigh feelings, and there’s evidence that crime is top of mind for voters as they head to the polls.

A September survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California showed that a majority of voters think that violence and street crime is a problem. Forty-three percent think that it’s increased in the last year.

California politics lightning round

— The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board encourages readers not to sign the petition to overturn SB 1137, arguing it’s “an attack on our health and safety that should be soundly rejected.”

— Mackenzie Mays reports that California’s first homeless hospice center faces pushback.

— The congressional election ads bombarding Californians show a sharp dichotomy in priorities — Democrats are laser-focused on abortion access, while Republicans zero in on inflation.

— The race for California’s top cop focuses on abortion, gun control and crime.

— Having problems activating your California gas tax refund debit card? Try again

Times staff writers Melody Gutierrez and Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.

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