Electric vehicles charging
Electric vehicles being charged. Photo courtesy SDG&E

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a gas rebate proposal last month to tackle California’s high gas prices. Under the proposal, all vehicle owners with cars registered in the state would receive a $400 debit card mailed directly to their homes, with those owning multiple cars receiving $800. If adopted, this proposal would disproportionately benefit wealthy Californians.

To help ameliorate some of the economywide impacts of inflation, the Newsom administration instead should take the broader approach outlined by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins: Use the state’s budget surplus to provide Californians with an across-the-board rebate for relief from all rising costs, not just gas.

California has some of the highest gas prices in the country, and working-class citizens across the state are dealing with the effects of record-breaking inflation. As our economy recovers from the pandemic, California still has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation. It’s not controversial to say that many Californians are struggling, and the government should step in to help.

However, singling out a fossil fuel to frame a tax rebate is unnecessary and in contradiction to California’s — and the governor’s — climate goals. 

Oil and gas companies are experiencing record profits because of the surges in gas prices and are, of course, passing those profits on to their executives. California’s government should focus on taking on greedy polluters, not subsidizing them.

Moreover, a gas rebate will not address the crucial issue of our dependence on fossil fuels. If Newsom is serious about helping all Californians, he needs to take major steps to transition California’s transportation system toward zero-emission technologies.

Earlier this year, Newsom detailed a new transportation budget proposal, including grants for free transit and substantial investments in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure. The proposal has some great elements in it, but Newsom should push even more aggressive legislation to ensure California can break its dependence on fossil fuels as soon as possible.

Outside of the Legislature, the governor can double down on electric vehicles. He should pressure the California Air Resources Board to pass the Advanced Clean Cars II rule that ramps up zero-emission vehicle sales as quickly as possible before reaching 100% by 2035. 

The governor also should push the air board to adopt a strong Advanced Clean Fleets rule that requires 100% of the sales of heavy-duty trucks to be ZEVs by 2036. Finally, Newsom should encourage the air board to use its existing authority to force the retirement of fossil-fueled trucks as soon as the law allows. 

As the governor looks at ways to provide relief to Californians, he must be careful that he does not deepen the state’s reliance on polluting fuels. The historic budget surplus and the air board’s wide docket of proposed transportation-related regulations provide Newsom with a unique opportunity to make real, progressive changes to our infrastructure while advancing the state’s climate goals. Let’s not waste this moment on a few Exxon Mobil gift cards. 

Brandon Dawson is the director of Sierra Club California. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.