By ADAM BEAM and DON THOMPSON – Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed sending money back to taxpayers to offset record-high gas prices, but dismissed calls to increase oil drilling, saying he wanted the state “off the hook once and for all.” free from petro-dictators.”
The average price of a gallon of gas in California is the highest in the country at $5.44, according to the AAA — a number likely to rise after President Joe Biden ordered Russian oil imports from Ukraine in response to the country’s invasion on Tuesday has forbidden.
Newsom’s proposal, announced during his annual State of the State address, would likely take the form of a tax refund. But the governor didn’t give details and said he will work with lawmakers “to put money in the pockets of Californians to help counter soaring gas prices.”
Newsom senior consultant Dee Dee Myers told reporters the rebate would likely run into billions of dollars and would be limited to people who have cars. People living in the country illegally would also be eligible for the rebate, which could happen as early as this spring.
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In a wide-ranging address, Newsom also warned that authoritarianism isn’t just on the rise abroad, and used his election-year speech to offer “a California way” as an antidote to what he called the “agents of a national anger machine.”
Newsom, a Democrat who successfully pushed back a midterm recall last year, also touted his administration’s progress on homelessness, the economy, education and climate change in a speech to assembled lawmakers in an auditorium near the state capitol. By contrast, last year’s speech – given the mid-pandemic – was delivered outdoors in an empty Dodger Stadium used as a mass testing ground.
This year, the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations is falling, and the nation’s attention is drawn to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the accompanying soaring gas prices. Republicans nationally and in California want the Biden administration to step up drilling. Newsom declined that call.
“Drilling more oil,” he said, “will only result in more extreme weather, more extreme drought, more wildfires.”
“We need to fight polluters, not empower them,” Newsom said. “And freeing us once and for all from the grip of the Petro dictators.”
As he did throughout the speech, Newsom offered “California’s leadership” as an alternative, calling clean energy “the greatest economic opportunity of this generation.”
California is one of the oil-richest states in the country, and Republicans, who are a small minority in the legislature and don’t hold statewide offices, see high gas prices as an election-year problem they can exploit. According to the Federation of Tax Administrators, California taxes gasoline at 51.1 cents per gallon, second only to Pennsylvania.
“Gas prices are out of control. Let’s suspend the gas tax, stop using foreign oil and focus on energy independence policies that don’t impose new burdens on working families,” MP Suzette Martinez Valladares said in the Republican “briefing” on Newsom’s speech.
Newsom has also proposed delaying a modest increase in the state’s gas tax that is due to take effect this summer. However, Democratic leaders in the legislature have opposed the proposal, arguing that it would make the state’s roads more difficult to maintain and produce only a barely noticeable discharge at the pump.
Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher said while Republicans may be critical of Newsom on other issues, they could work with him on the tax refund.
“When we have a nearly $60 billion surplus in the state, it means people are overwhelmed and we should be giving some of their money back to voters and citizens of this state, especially during the trying times we’re going through when the cost of living goes through the roof,” said Gallagher.
The governor has otherwise pushed for California, famous for its car culture, to be weaned from the internal combustion engine.
Newsom has ordered the state to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035 and to halt all oil drilling in the state by 2045.
The Newsom government has issued 632 oil drilling permits in 2021 and so far this year, but about 300 of those have yet to be exploited, according to the governor’s office.
Several environmental groups said Newsom should impose an immediate moratorium on oil and gas exploration.
Newsom hit back at Republicans, who blamed rising crime on Democratic policies. He said California is funding increased crime-fighting efforts but “won’t return to tough policies that have marked past failures.”
Newsom began and ended his speech as if addressing a national audience while denouncing developments elsewhere while promoting California’s efforts to “find new solutions to big problems.” Democracy is in danger, Newsom warned.
“While we may not have strongmen literally waging war in our country, we are plagued by agents of a national anger machine that is fueling division and arming the grievance,” he said. “Mighty forces and loud voices – fueling fear and trying to divide us, to weaken the institutions of our democracy.”
As an alternative, he offered the history of California to “broaden the horizon of the possible”.
“We know that government cannot be the whole solution, but we also know that government has always been part of the solution,” Newsom said.
He said governments’ goals should include boosting the private sector, promoting diversity and “uniting around a common goal”.
Polls routinely show that homelessness is one of the most pressing issues facing California voters. The state has the largest homeless population in the country, and Newsom has budgeted a record $12 billion for various programs and initiatives, but camps are still plentiful.
In his speech, Newsom announced his plan, unveiled last week, to create new ones Care courts in each county that could force people with mental health problems off the streets and into treatment.
But Gallagher, the GOP leader, said Newsom has already spent billions of dollars tackling homelessness “and the problem has gotten worse. You can’t just show up and do some cleanup with the camera and another photo op and say ‘mission accomplished.’ That does not work.”
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