Monday, September 26, 2016

LEGALIZED POT ALMOST A CERTAINTY

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 14, 2016, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “LEGALIZED POT ALMOST A CERTAINTY”


          A sense of certainty that recreational, random marijuana use will be legalized, regulated and taxed in California after next month’s election lies behind the millions of dollars invested so far in Proposition 64, which would allow adults to grow, buy and possess pot. No more medical marijuana ruses.


          The sense of inevitability stems partly from the experiences of Colorado and Washington state, where cannabis can be had anytime in very many places and is regulated somewhat like cigarettes. In short, not much. Polls now show between 55 and 60 percent of likely voters favor complete legalization, and national polls indicate almost exactly half of all Americans also want that. Support for freedom to use the weed has never been higher.


          So it’s no wonder hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in marijuana farming equipment and land over the last year, not to mention the $6 million-plus former Facebook president Sean Parker has spent on the initiative. Greed also spurs entrepreneurs to develop a range of cannabis products from caramels to cancer pain suppressors. Some outfits talk of becoming the Uber of pot, the Starbucks of joints.


          But wait a minute. Things just might not be as certain as they seem.


          Plenty of ballot initiatives have begun with seemingly insurmountable leads in the polls and then lost. Most recently, there was the proposed off-reservation Indian casino intended for Madera, voted down in 2014. It was the only time in more than half a century that Californians voted against expansion of gambling. Historically, 83 percent of all initiatives that appear on California ballots lose.


          Proposition 64, one of 17 initiatives on the current ballot, could end today’s hodgepodge of medical marijuana regulations, which differ greatly from city to city, county to county.


          It would make irrelevant the weakness in the original 1996 Proposition 215, which authorized medipot use and sales with nothing more than a doctor’s recommendation. Not a prescription, like other drugs. Just a recommendation, and those can be obtained very easily and casually, sometimes right in pot shops sporting big green-cross signs.


          So in reality recreational pot has been all but legal in California for two decades. Almost any adult can get a medical marijuana recommendation and buy cannabis products legally; existing pot shops having few licensing or quality control restrictions. If the new measure passes, it would allow anyone over 21 to use, grow and purchase the weed, with the state licensing businesses that grow and sell marijuana products. Those same shops could not sell liquor or tobacco, as some do now. But the regulation would fall far short of anything like the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) stores long operated in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and 16 other so-called “control” states that decades ago took over the liquor trade within their boundaries.


          Instead of citizens buying booze in grocery stores, liquor stores and elsewhere, in those states all hard liquor purchases are made in government stores with profit margins lower than elsewhere. Some of them allow beer and wine sales in other stores. That can be inconvenient for drinkers, but it allows tight regulation of who imbibes the strongest beverages.


          One alternative pot regulation measure sought something similar for California early in the process of qualifying initiatives for this ballot. But even the current measure provides for packaging standards and other regulations.


          In short, some aspects of the Wild West approach to the weed now seen in a few parts of California would end. But other hard to control actions linked to pot would likely persist, like the booby traps and armed bands that protect some pot plots.


          Smoking while driving would be forbidden, but it would be up to the Legislature and local governments to set standards for how much pot can be smoked before driving and to make other key rules.


          In short, this is a sort of compromise. While pot would be legal, it would not be unregulated as it is now, with non-medically-related sales de facto having no restrictions at all despite laws to the contrary. And that means there’s at least some potential for throwing monkey wrenches into the many ongoing speculative plans for making millions off marijuana users in California.




    -30-       
     Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net

GOP MUST CHANGE TO ACHIEVE LATINO PIPE DREAM

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2016 OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “GOP MUST CHANGE TO ACHIEVE LATINO PIPE DREAM”


          As California enters the heart of an election year where the Top Two primary system has saddled the state’s Republican Party with new problems at several political and governmental levels, the GOP still clings to one big pipe dream:


          Despite the anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican rhetoric of presidential nominee Donald Trump, the GOP persists in hoping to cut into the gigantic majorities every Democrat has won among Latinos over the last generation, except when they’ve run against movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.


          Schwarzenegger was a special case, first winning office in a recall election almost purely on the strength of his celebrity and muscleman image.


          That did not help the GOP in the long term. The state party now faces an unprecedented situation where it not only qualified no candidate for this fall’s contest to replace Democrat Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate, but also has no candidates at all in more than 30 other races.


          Around the state today, 25 battles for Congress or the Legislature see only one party on the ballot, two more feature Democrats facing off with “no party preference” candidates and 16 slots have candidates running unopposed. The vast majority of these one-sided elections feature Democrats.


          One cause is clear: If the GOP had been able to draw a substantial vote from the state’s large Latino population in the June primary, today’s situation would look very different. After more than a century of political dormancy, Latinos have emerged as the second-largest ethnic voting bloc in California and almost everywhere else, trailing only whites of European descent.


          There is no Schwarzenegger-like savior in sight today for the state’s Republicans  – in fact, there is no major GOP figure now among the leading prospects to run for governor in 2018 –  so the state party’s real need is to look hard at what it does and how that offends Latinos. For without a lot of Latino votes, no party in California can hope to accomplish much.


          Just how negatively Latinos feel about Republicans can be seen in some recent elections. In 2010, Boxer carried 66 percent of the Latino vote to 31 percent for rival Carly Fiorina. If Fiorina had won 40 percent of Latino votes – as Ronald Reagan often did in his heyday – she’d be a senator today. Jerry Brown won Latino balloting by a 63-34 percent margin in the same year – the last time California had an open seat in the governor’s office. With Trump running, polls suggest Democrats can now expect to get well over 70 percent of Latino votes.


          Republicans are realistic enough to know they’ll have to turn around quite a few Latinos to make respectable showings in the future, or to begin cutting down the current 17 percent Democratic advantage among registered voters.


          They vowed several times in recent years to do that, even hiring Latino outreach directors with Spanish surnames. So far, it has not helped.


          So if Republicans don’t want to sink into complete irrelevancy in California, they’ll have to make some real changes. Merely hiring people whose names sound Hispanic won’t do. Nor will happy talk. Especially not after most key state GOP figures fell right into line behind Trump despite his racist remarks and attacks even on second generation Mexican-Americans.


          One national poll by the pro-immigrant America’s Voice organization found more than 80 percent of Latino voters consider immigration today’s most important issue. The survey found the vast majority wants a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have caused no trouble while living in America for several years.


          Republicans who take stances like that, including U.S. Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, both reelected repeatedly in Central Valley districts with large Latino voting blocs, are eminently electable.


          But so far, only a few Republicans have seen this light. The remainder refuse to make a significant shift on immigration, preferring to be hard-liners who have at least provided a counterpoint to the Democrats’ pro-immigration stances, when they’d have a chance to win if they changed a bit.


          Until this mind-set alters, expect no major gains for the GOP in California, which except in a few places is now about as irrelevant as any major political party here ever has been.


    -30-
    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.


Monday, September 19, 2016

EX-PARTE REFORM MAY BE DEAD FOR AT LEAST TWO YEARS

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2016, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “E
X-PARTE REFORM MAY BE DEAD FOR AT LEAST TWO YEARS


          Advocates of more openness and transparency from California’s ethically-challenged regulatory agencies are still as stunned and frustrated today as they were in early September, when the year’s most important proposed government reforms died without so much as a state Senate vote.


          Led by three-term Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto of the San Fernando Valley, advocates of the proposed changes wanted to limit private communications between regulators like members of the Public Utilities and Energy commissions and the people whose key issues they decide. Meetings and emails and phone calls could still have gone on, but summaries of their contents were to be required within three days.


          Even Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed slightly tougher provisions a year ago, signed onto that. But Gatto and others backing the change bills were left stunned when their measures didn’t even get voted on by the Senate after passing the state Assembly months earlier with a massive bipartisan 61-7 majority.


          It’s unclear who stalled even a committee vote until after the deadline, or why. One candidate, of course, is state Sen. Ben Hueso of San Diego County, chairman of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. Hueso is widely known as a “business Democrat;” his committee’s inaction here plainly favored the interests of a few big businesses over tens of millions of consumers.


          “I certainly did feel that that the Public Utilities Commission, the Brown administration, the (utility and consumer) lobbyists – essentially everyone in Sacramento with an interest in the issue – had agreed on this,” said a chagrined Gatto, who will be termed out later this year with more than $2 million remaining in his campaign war chest.


          “It’s very hard to know who was actively responsible,” Gatto added. “But this didn’t even get a vote, so no one is on the record and there are no fingerprints.”


          Fingerprints or not, the reforms are dead, certainly for this year and most likely for at least two more years.


          There actually was a vote on an ex-parte communications ban for the Coastal Commission, and it lost at the last minute in the Assembly. This also shocked transparency advocates because that measure had easily passed the state Senate weeks earlier. The upshot is that there will be no meaningful changes in flawed procedures that led to an ongoing criminal investigation of the PUC itself, its former president Michael Peevey, and their ties to the Southern California Edison Co., plus the August criminal conviction of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. over its behavior after the fatal 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion.


Gatto, who originally sought a virtual dismantling of the PUC, scaled that goal back in negotiations with the governor that he and everyone involved believed would guarantee passage of some changes, watered down as they would have been. In the end, there will be virtually no change.


Now Gatto contemplates using his remaining campaign funds to back a reform initiative. “I would consider making PUC members into elected officials, to provide more accountability,” he said. “But it remains to be seen if I’ll have the influence to do something like this (after leaving office). For sure, it’s tough. But I’m not the first person to lose on a big reform bill in Sacramento.”


          In fact, most big changes in California have had to come via initiatives because of the heavy influence business lobbyists can bring to bear on the Legislature at key moments like the end of session crunch in which this year’s planned reforms died.


          The Coastal Commission is the result of such a legislative freeze, even if it has reform-worthy problems of its own. Gubernatorial vetoes have killed other needed changes.


          So Gatto would not be the first to go the initiative route. Precisely the same kind of corruption and consumer dissatisfaction with appointed insurance commissioners led to the 1988 Proposition 103, which made that office electoral.


          But could a reform initiative pass if Gatto and others tried one? That’s highly doubtful considering the track record of big utilities in successfully beating back all proposed measures of the last 50 years aimed at accountability for them and the commissions that set their pricing and energy policies.


    -30-       
     Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net


TPP LIKELY DEAD AS WRITTEN; WHAT ABOUT A REWRITE?

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2016, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
    “TPP LIKELY DEAD AS WRITTEN; WHAT ABOUT A REWRITE?”


          Plenty of negatives have emerged from the ongoing presidential campaign: open bigotry has become more acceptable than it’s been for decades, foul language is more fashionable and so are pantsuits, and much more.


          But one big positive also stands out. As now written, the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement is probably dead. And the way it’s now written is the only version that that counts for now, because sometime in the next few months, Congress must vote it up or down – no amendments allowed.


          Unless it’s voted on in the December “lame duck” session of Congress – where the votes of folks voted out in November still count – this pet agreement of President Obama’s is virtually dead. The booing the treaty got whenever mentioned at both Democratic and Republican national conventions last summer gave some notion how unpopular this agreement has become. It may be safe for folks departing Congress to vote for it, but not anyone who hopes for reelection two years from now after some TPP provisions would begin to bite.


          Yes, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at one time supported it. She says she took another look and now wants it defeated. The flip-flop, she says, stemmed from a more detailed reading of the treaty. It also came after a hot campaign by Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders which made the TPP a major negative talking point.


          Meanwhile, Republican nominee Donald Trump denounced the treaty as “insanity,” adding that it greatly favors China – even though China is not a party to it.


          So this agreement is almost certainly a campaign casualty, a big change from when its passage was rated as very likely.


          Its demise will be well deserved, for TPP – whose text was secret through years of haggling among 12 nations (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the USA) has virtually all the negatives of the North American Free Trade Agreement, better known as NAFTA, while adding no discernible new advantages for America.


          Not only would this agreement likely send many thousands of American jobs abroad, just as labor leaders – and Trump – contend NAFTA has done, but like that treaty, it includes a key feature infringing mightily on America’s very sovereignty.


          This takes the form of an international tribunal of lawyers from a variety of countries that’s empowered to override some laws of member countries and even to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court.


          That has happened before in cases involving everything from dolphin-safe tuna fishing off Southern California to this state’s rules on gasoline additives, and it’s happening right now, with Canadian lawyers using NAFTA to challenge Obama’s right to cancel the once-planned Keystone XL pipeline project because denying the project could cost jobs in Canada.


          That claim might be correct. But denial of the project also might prevent huge oil spills in pristine countryside and forests, not to mention spoilage of vital farmland.


          Even if the Canadian oil industry is right about lost jobs and even if there would be few or no negative Keystone consequences in this country, the very fact that another country can go outside the U.S. legal system with impunity on an issue vital to many Americans is just plain wrong. And by itself  enough to merit killing the new treaty.


          But just because this agreement should be voted down in its present form doesn’t mean it must stay dead. The same negotiators who met secretly for almost five years to produce the present text now know what Americans dislike about their work product. They can rewrite it to leave American sovereignty intact. They can make it more protective of American workers and their jobs. And then bring it back for another vote.


          For some kind of treaty among the 12 nations in on this one – or at least most of them – might be an effective counter to China’s increasing trade power in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

         
While opposition to the current treaty resonates with working class voters eagerly courted by Clinton and Trump, an improved agreement might actually help them.


          And that might be enough to gain back both Republican and Democratic votes in Congress lost to the presidential politics of 2016.
         
         
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 Elias is author of the current book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated second edition. His email address is tdelias@aol.com

Monday, September 12, 2016

AT LAST, A MOVE TO CUT BACK ON H1-B VISAS

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2016, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“AT LAST, A MOVE TO CUT BACK ON H1-B VISAS”


Only rarely do Republicans and Democrats in California’s ideologically and politically divided congressional delegation work together on problems, but the often abused H1-B visa program is now the subject of some unusual cooperation.


          The H1-B, created to help grow the economy by providing temporary visas to highly-skilled foreign individuals when employers can’t find suitable hires in the American work force, is one of the most abused of all government programs.


          Not only do high-tech companies constantly work to find loopholes allowing them to bring in more workers than the legal 85,000 H1-B visa limit would allow, but they don’t even want to fully report on workers they do hire.


          Those technology companies not only lobby Congress to up the limits (which used to be 65,000 a year); they’ve also strong-armed presidents. Outgoing President Barak Obama, for example, last year essentially doubled the 85,000 limit via executive action, making spouses of existing H1-B visa holders eligible for visas of their own, each to last as long as their husband’s or wife’s.


          Congress didn’t even complain about this, despite its gripes about other executive actions.


          Now come two ideologically very different congressmen from San Diego County, conservative Republican Darrell Issa and liberal Democrat Scott Peters, with a plan to clamp down on two common kinds of H1-B abuse. They would eliminate two exemptions that have gone unchanged since 1998. These allow companies not to attest that they couldn’t find suitable, comparable American employees, so long as their immigrant workers either make more than $60,000 a year or hold a master’s degree.


          Said Issa in a written statement: “Because master’s degrees are often easily obtained by foreign workers and because the $60,000 salary requirement was never indexed for inflation or updated, these two exemptions have allowed (a few) companies to…take up a disproportionate amount of the visas that would otherwise go to highly skilled (American) individuals…”


          In short, Issa and Peters contend, a few companies take advantage of the longstanding exemptions to hire more than their fair share of H1-B immigrants, thus depriving other companies which need workers with very specialized skills of the chance to get them.


          “We need strong systems…to prevent (this) abuse and protect jobs for American workers,” said Peters.


          He and Issa propose eliminating the master’s degree exemption, because many of those “degrees” turn out to be mail-order phonies or inferior to diplomas from American universities. They would also raise the salary level for the reporting exemption to $100,000 and index it to future inflation.


          That, said Issa, would “make it much harder for firms to bring in workers at a salary that could cut American jobs.”


          So here are two longtime California politicians, normally at odds, who are willing to forego party rhetoric that often sees each party accusing the other of neglecting or even opposing the interests of American workers. That’s a downright refreshing scene in the midst of one of the roughest, most insulting presidential campaigns in modern American history.


          Plus, it’s a first effort at fixing some of what’s wrong with H1-B visas, which long have been a way for companies to save money at the expense of well-trained, expert Americans, some of whom remain unemployed for years because their salary requirements are higher than those of H1-B immigrants.


          The visas also often act as a funnel for illegal immigration, some studies showing the majority of H1-B holders either overstay their six-year limit or simply don’t go home when fired or laid off, as the visas require.


          That’s one reason the Silicon Valley sometimes seems filled with intellectual motel desk clerks, hotel maids and TV repair persons who appear overqualified for their current jobs.


          No matter who becomes president next January, the reality is that the H1-B program suffers from many abuses and needs fixing. It’s definite progress when politicos from opposing camps can at least agree on that.



              -30-

    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

’BUSINESS DEMOS’ CREATE NEW CALIFORNIA POLITICAL REALITIES

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2016, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “’BUSINESS DEMOS’ CREATE NEW CALIFORNIA POLITICAL REALITIES”


          Fran Pavley, about to be termed out of her seat in the state Senate, was worried before the June primary election: Would her trusted longtime aide Henry Stern be aced out of the November runoff election to succeed her by a more business-oriented Democrat?


The answer turned out to be no, but it was no sure thing, as Stern managed only a 7 percent margin over Janice Kamenir-Reznik, attorney and longtime activist, president of the California Women’s Law Center and co-founder of anti-genocide organization Jewish World Watch.


This was a classic fight between Democrats whose priorities are only slightly different. Stern has a strong environmentalist record. Kamenir-Reznik was perceived as more business-friendly. So a large share of the $900,000 in primary election spending – mostly money from businesses – in the San Fernando Valley-based 27th state Senate district went to Kamenir-Reznik, while Stern got some support from labor unions.


Pavley, who wrote landmark state environmental laws like the 2006 limits on greenhouse gases and carried legislation making the reopening of the leaky Southern California Gas Co. Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field more difficult, could breathe easier.


Stern did not lead the field in the primary, but he was the leading Democrat and is favored to best Republican Steve Fazio in the fall.


This race played out differently from others in the new political reality that’s emerged here since the 2010 adoption of the Top Two primary election system. The new system, which sees a one-party U.S. Senate race and more than two-dozen one-party legislative and congressional matchups this fall, has spawned a de facto third significant political party, loosely called the “business Democrats.”


          This grouping, often elected over opposition from labor-backed fellow Democrats, represents fulfillment of the stated purpose of Proposition 14, which created Top Two. Its generally moderate members usually vote with Democrats on social issues like abortion and gun control, but are far less environmentally oriented than the party mainstream. The Republican minority in Democrat-dominated districts often helps elect them.


          They are the big reason business-funded political action committees will spend well over $20 million this year on California legislative and congressional races, even though the 17 state propositions on the November ballot are diverting some business-donated PAC money. Education interests also are splitting money between candidates who favor charter schools (generally business Democrats) and those loyal to teachers’ unions.


          A typical race of this type comes in San Bernardino County, where moderate, business-oriented Democrats have never been rare. That’s where incumbent Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, backed by realtors and oil companies, benefitted from more than $600,000 in business PAC money during the primary.


          Those interests won’t have to spent as much this fall because Brown’s more environmentally-oriented opponent is Eloise Reyes, who finished 9 percent behind Brown in the primary. Reyes doesn’t figure to pick up many of the 21 percent of voters who went for the sole Republican running in the primary.


          But business PACs might have to spend heavily in the 3rd Senate district, where longtime incumbent Lois Wolk of Davis is termed out. This race also features two Democrats, the business-oriented Bill Dodd, now an assemblyman, facing Mariko Yamada, a former assembly member. Dodd got more than three times as much financial support in the primary as all other candidates combined, but is still not assured of election unless he gets substantial support from the district’s minority Republicans.


          EdVoice, a so-called “reform” group advocating more rigorous school evaluations, scored a major primary victory in the nearby 4th Assembly District, covering parts of Napa, Yolo and Sonoma Counties, when Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry drew 28 percent of the vote, thus eliminating Wolk’s son Dan, who scored 25 percent. Republican Charlie Schaupp stunned Democrats in the district by taking 29 percent in the primary, but is viewed as a sure November loser in this heavily Democratic district.


          The bottom line is that there are fewer sure-thing races for Congress and the Legislature in the offing this fall than before Top Two began, and that the minority party in districts heavily dominated by either Democrats or Republicans will decide some close races.


          Smaller parties don’t like this, because they have no runoff election slots, but they can fix that if they draw more votes down the line and, perhaps, raise more money to help them draw those votes.


-30-
    Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

DESPITE LOWER PRICES, GAS GOUGING SIGNS CONTINUE

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2016, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “DESPITE LOWER PRICES, GAS GOUGING SIGNS CONTINUE”


          Memo to Loretta Sanchez and Kamala Harris, the two Democrats now vying for the U.S. Senate seat long held by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer:


          Each of you could get a whole lot of traction and voter support by going after the apparent continuing practice of gasoline price gouging engaged in by California’s major oil refiners. You, especially, Ms. Harris, ought to know about this as you are allegedly investigating the suspected practice right now in your current function as state attorney general.


          Meanwhile, neither Harris nor Sanchez has said much about hydraulic fracturing (fracking), price gouging or anything else oil companies might be interested in since their contest narrowed to two persons after the June primary.


          It might be awkward for an organization Democrat like Harris to do this in light of a late-summer report from the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group which documented that, for example, Chevron Corp. donated $135,000 to the state Democratic Party the same day Democratic legislators exempted some critical fracking methods from SB4, a bill meant to regulate the oil- and gas-drilling practice.


          That same report showed Chevron gave $300,000 to the state party just two weeks before Gov. Jerry Brown came out against a proposed severance tax on oil produced in California. This is the only major oil-producing state without such a tax.


          So Harris, solidly supported by Brown and the state Democratic Party apparatus, might not want to say much about oil companies. But Sanchez, never an establishment politician, might feel no such compunctions.


          Meanwhile, motorists may not have been feeling as gouged lately as they did last winter, since late-summer gasoline prices dropped as low as $2.25 per gallon at some non-branded service stations, while the statewide average at the time was about $2.75. This didn’t mean the gouging that’s been apparent for years suddenly stopped.


          Lower crude oil prices have so curtailed refiner expenses that even with cheaper pump prices, their profits are near record levels.


          In late summer, for example, the Texas-based oil refiner Tesoro, which operates plants in Carson, Wilmington and Martinez that process almost 550,000 barrels of crude oil daily, reported profits of $332 million from its California operations, well above longstanding quarterly averages. Tesoro makes 27 percent of California gasoline.


          Fellow Texas-based refiner Valero, meanwhile, reported $141 million in California profits during the second quarter of this year, far more than double its average quarterly profit of $57 million since 2010. Tesoro and Valero are the only oil companies that break out California results from their overall financial reports.


          These huge profits can happen even with crude oil prices low because California refiners are charging a huge margin above their wholesale costs. For instance, during the summer, the wholesale price of gasoline, when sold from one refiner to another, was $1.17. That was 18 cents less than the wholesale price in Chicago, for one example.


          Normally, pump prices in California – even with all its taxes and environmental costs – run about 88 cents above the wholesale level. But drivers lately have paid $1.58 more, with almost all the difference – about 70 cents per gallon – going into the coffers of the refiners, whose profits as a result are near peak levels.


          The refiners did all this with no peep of protest from politicians at any level.


          The only outfit tracking their profits and supplies on a regular basis is Consumer Watchdog, which claims that “Supply and demand is completely out of whack.”


          In short, Consumer Watchdog president Court insists it’s no accident that drivers who see branded stations on the same street intersection will almost always note that prices at the various brands are identical. If one gasoline dealer charges $2.89 per gallon, almost always the competitor across the street asks the same.


          It’s because of price-fixing, the group says. Agrees Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor and America’s biggest donor to liberal political causes, “The gasoline market in California is definitely out of whack.” Steyer admits to mulling a run for governor in 2018 and has been featured in TV commercials from NextGen, an environmental group he founded.


          Meanwhile, the oil industry’s group, Western States Petroleum Assn., repeatedly insists that “market factors are the primary driver of fuel costs in California.”


          Harris has said nothing about her investigation into the gouging claims. If she won’t discuss the subject before the November election, maybe Sanchez will.
         


    -30-       
     Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net