Small-business group urges people to speak up on coming gas price increase (video)

Opponents of a greenhouse-gas reducing proposal that could significantly increase gas prices next year are asking the public to weigh in after being handed a political defeat in the state Legislature.

The National Federation of Independent Business came to Fresno on Thursday, where it urged voters to exert political pressure on Gov. Jerry Brown, other elected officials and the state Air Resources Control Board to either stop or delay a new cap-and-trade mandate that starting Jan. 1 will cover transportation fuels.

"This is a hidden gas tax that, make no mistake, is coming to your local gas station come Jan. 1 of this next year," John Kabateck, the NFIB's executive director in California, said Thursday morning at a news conference at Sal's Mexican Restaurant in north Fresno.

California's cap-and-trade program is part of Assembly Bill 32, the state's 2006 emissions-reducing law. It requires industries to buy pollution allowances for carbon they release into the air. Next year, transportation fuels will be added to the program.

It will likely bring a case of sticker shock to the state's drivers.

The nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst's Office said in a letter that after reviewing studies, it estimated that by 2020 gas prices could increase 13 to 20 cents per gallon -- or even 50 cents or more.

At Thursday's news conference, speakers suggested the increase could top 70 cents per gallon.

Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, a Fresno Democrat, introduced legislation that would have delayed putting fuels under the cap-and-trade program for three years, but Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg sent Perea a letter this week saying he would block the bill from consideration for this session, which ends Sunday.

Perea said his legislation didn't seek to stop the plan to put transportation fuels under the cap-and-trade program, but rather to delay it so it could be properly vetted.

The increase in gas prices, Perea said, will hit harder in the Central Valley, which is poorer and lacks adequate public transportation. Wealthier areas of the state such as Marin County may feel the increase, but will adjust easier because of the higher incomes and more transportation options.

"People in the Central Valley and other inland communities don't have access to alternative forms of transportation," Perea said in response to Steinberg's letter, citing the Bay Area Rapid Transportation (BART) rail system as an example. "They need to drive to get to work, to go to the doctor, and access essential city services."

Kabateck echoed Perea -- and invoked his name -- in saying a delay is the right thing to do. That would allow time for a proper public debate on the issue, he said.

"All we're asking for is to push the pause button," Kabateck said.

But ultimately, he added that whether putting transportation fuels under the cap-and-trade program happens Jan. 1, 2015 or Jan. 1, 2018, it is still bad policy because it will hurt consumers and increase costs to small businesses in California.

Kabateck also spoke in support of a bill by state Sen. Andy Vidak, a Hanford Republican, which would permanently exempt transportation fuels from the cap-and-trade program.

Vidak's bill met the same fate as Perea's.

Steinberg's letter to Perea said he was also concerned about the increasing costs, but also said moving from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives would in the long run reduce fuel costs and improve public health.

At the news conference, Kabateck and local small business owners were skeptical of such talk, saying there should be a through public debate if that is the case.

Gary Honeycutt, owner of BJ's Kountry Kitchen restaurants, said the reality for him is higher gas prices means higher transportation prices.

"My cost to purchase food will go up, which means I will have to raise prices just to stay in business," he said. "Fuel price increases like these throughout California are inevitably going to have a significant effect on California's businesses, its economy and all of its residents."