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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Democrats' Attack on Big Oil Has No Get Up and Go

March 30, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It doesn't get much more hokey at the state Capitol than to stage a "news conference" on the west steps. Any steps, for that matter. But the west steps hold a special draw for photo-op pols.

There's natural lighting for TV, especially in the afternoon as the sun heads west across the Sacramento River. By backing up a half-block, a cameraman can tuck the Capitol dome and fluttering flags into a lens.

When politicians want to sell sizzle without much steak, they walk out onto the sun-splashed granite steps rather than into the Capitol news conference room, where substance--if it exists--can be dissected.

And so it was Wednesday that 22 Assembly Democrats, led by Speaker-elect Bob Hertzberg of Sherman Oaks, descended on the west steps to attack the oil companies for high gasoline prices. They verbally assaulted and financially threatened--but didn't offer much substance. "End the gouging now," Hertzberg demanded of the oil companies, "or face an excess profits surcharge."

Added Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley of San Francisco: "Working families pay while the oil barons get their way. . . . Act responsibly and we'll deal with education, health care. . . . Don't act responsibly and we'll deal with you."

And just how will they deal with these greedy barons? "We're working on what the solutions are," Hertzberg told reporters, dismissing all questions about detail. "Our message is we're serious about this issue."

But what's an "excess" profit? "Yet to be determined."


This is about lawmakers being convinced there's an issue out there somewhere--and political mileage to be gained from $2 gas--if they can just find the right road map.

Republicans already have a head start, pushing for cuts in the gas tax. In Sacramento, the Assembly GOP for weeks has been agitating to eliminate the sales tax on gasoline--a base 7.25%--in order to lower the pump price. They note that state government is sitting on a massive budget surplus of at least $8 billion. But Democrats won't hear of it; to them, cutting taxes is sacrilege.

Anyway, point out Democrats--tossing the Republicans' free market philosophy back at them--prices are established by supply and demand. Cut the sales tax and there's no guarantee the oil companies will pass along the savings to motorists; more than likely, they'll just pocket the government largess.

Outgoing Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who's running for L.A. mayor, stunned fellow Democrats last week by siding--sort of--with Republicans. He proposed a four-month summer respite on the gasoline sales tax. "It's not always either-or," Villaraigosa said. "Republicans want permanent [sales tax] repeal. Democrats don't want to do anything. Meanwhile, people are feeling the pinch at the pump."

Democratic lawmakers rolled their eyes. They saw their former leader posturing for L.A. drivers. And some Democrats got so upset they decided to choreograph Wednesday's dog-and-pony show on the Capitol steps.

But first they staged an opening act--a "special fact-finding" hearing Tuesday by three Assembly committees. Explained one Democrat staffer: "Democrats are all puffed up because the lame duck speaker is carrying the Republican mantle."


The hearing room was three-fourths empty. And that showed me how much public concern there really is about high gas prices.

True, there hadn't been much public notice. But big angry crowds have been generated in less time at the Capitol.

Fewer than half the committee members showed up. And only about 35 people, mostly lobbyists, wandered in out of curiosity. Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer floated the idea of an excess profits tax to pay for a gasoline sales tax cut.

Later, I was told by pollsters that the public does blame OPEC and Big Oil, but there's no outcry for a tax cut. People won't rebel if there aren't long gas lines. "Right now it's kind of just an irritant," says GOP consultant Ray McNally.

"Some politicians obviously are looking to fan the flames. If prices keep going up, it could be an issue."

Here's a good fairness issue, and it's the Republicans': Practically all the sales tax on gasoline--roughly $1.7 billion a year--is spent on non-road projects, such as schools and welfare. Motorists' taxes should be used to improve highways. Republicans had a bill to require that, but Democrats killed it in January.

Since then, politicians have been posturing about tax cuts and oil barons. Meanwhile, they're still gridlocked over how to fix California's clogged highway system.

P.S. That photo-op Wednesday was so hokey it attracted only two TV cameras. And one was the Democrats' own.

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