CMA Capitol Insight: August 17, 2015

August 17, 2015
Area(s) of Interest: Access to Care Advocacy 

CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Anthony York, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.

Cars, care and climate

As lawmakers return from their summer recess, Sacramento is getting ready for the final legislative sprint of 2015. Hundreds of bills will be debated and voted on, but the focus will be centered on three areas of policy debate – transportation, health care and climate change.

The four-week stint also offers Gov. Jerry Brown another opportunity to burnish his legacy as he wraps up the first year of his final term in office.

During his inaugural address in January, Brown set out ambitious environmental goals for California, including a new benchmark to increase the electricity the state receives from renewable sources. But Brown also set a goal for the state to cut petroleum use in vehicles by 50 percent by the year 2030, setting up a showdown between environmental groups and the oil industry.

Already, the battle is joined and in full swing. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has joined forces with consumer groups, raising questions about California’s high gas prices and urging an investigation into what he says is possible collusion among oil companies to keep state gas prices high.

The industry has responded with a series of targeted mailers and radio spots aimed at framing the debate over the new petroleum standard as a state effort to impose driving limits on Californians.

This will come to a head in the form of SB 350, a bill being carried by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, which would provide the legislative framework for achieving the governor’s goals. The recess has been filled with meetings and groups proposing amendments to the bill, in what is sure to be one of the most closely watched and highly contentious pieces of legislation in the final weeks of the 2015 legislative year.

There are also two special sessions that have been urged by Brown – one on health care and one on transportation. The latter may well overlap with the climate change proposal, as lawmakers ponder an increase in the state gas tax.

Money to pay for maintenance and construction of roads comes from state gasoline taxes – a flat tax per gallon. As car fuel efficiency has increased, that means less gas is being purchased in the state, and road revenues have plummeted. Some estimates place the need as high as $50 billion.

Brown is backing a gas-tax hike, but that may be difficult now that Democrats have lost their legislative supermajorities. That means in order for a gas tax hike to pass, Brown will need to enlist support from some Republican lawmakers in addition to Democrats.

Some Republicans have indicated they're open to hiking the gas tax for the first time in more than 20 years -- but only if the money is restricted to transportation improvements.

Health care is the other major topic left open for discussion, with everything from an increase in Medi-Cal provider rates to a new tobacco tax on the table. The tobacco industry has already flexed its muscle this year, shooting down proposed regulations on e-cigarettes, thanks to some help from moderate Democratic members in the Assembly.

That’s why a health care and labor coalition, Save Lives California, stands poised to move ahead with efforts to ask voters to raise tobacco taxes. What happens over this next month will have a dramatic impact on the 2016 ballot, which may be a spillover of some of these fights that will come to a head in Sacramento beginning this week.

What happens in Sacramento doesn’t always stay in Sacramento. Indeed, what happens in the Capitol over the next four weeks will shape the political environment for 2016, and determine which issues will ultimately be decided by the voters of California.


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