Capitol Alert

Bill to strip coal from California pension portfolios heads to governor

Emissions from a coal-fired power plant in Ghent, Ky., June 2, 2014.
Emissions from a coal-fired power plant in Ghent, Ky., June 2, 2014. NYT

California’s public pension funds would need to drop their current investments in coal and avoid making new ones under a bill the California Assembly sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System and California State Teachers’ Retirement System oversee portfolios worth about $301 billion and $191 billion, respectively. A spokesman for CalPERS said the fund currently invests in between 20 and 30 of the type of thermal coal mining companies covered by Senate Bill 185, with a cumulative value of between $100 million and $200 million. A spokesman for CalSTRS said the fund’s investment portfolio holds approximately $40 million in thermal coal.

Policies combating climate change are preoccupying lawmakers this year. Advocates of SB 185, carried by Senate leader Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, and passed on a 43-27 vote, argue California should not be lending financial support to the coal industry at a time when the state tries to expand the use of renewable energy.

The bill “aligns our investment policies with our values,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, adding that the bill would not violate pension funds’ fiduciary obligations because “coal is a bad investment.”

Republicans voted against the bill and several Democrats withheld their votes, with critics saying the measure would undermine the pension funds’ independence and reduce investment returns that pay retirees’ benefits. A recent Sacramento Bee analysis found California’s pension debt becoming worse.

“We need to be concerned about the long-term sustainability of CalPERS and our pension programs,” said Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City. “We need to make (investment) decisions based on good, sound financial decisions, not based on emotions.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert