Capitol Alert

Analysis: Jerry Brown puts happy face on climate change, road improvement defeats

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, listens Wednesday to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, left, and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins as they announce they will abandon efforts this year to require a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use in motor vehicles by 2030.
Gov. Jerry Brown, center, listens Wednesday to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, left, and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins as they announce they will abandon efforts this year to require a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use in motor vehicles by 2030.

Gov. Jerry Brown gets his way with the California Legislature so often that his defeat on major climate and transportation initiatives this week put him in an unusual defensive spot.

The fourth-term Democrat rests his reputation on greenhouse gas reduction policies, and he called lawmakers into a special session to address the state’s dilapidated roads.

So when Brown capitulated Wednesday, he promoted a more favorable interpretation of his setback.

On climate, the line was this: Brown and legislative leaders were forced to abandon a measure to curtail gasoline consumption because they would have had to agree to curtail the administration’s regulatory powers to get it passed.

Oil companies had flooded moderate Democrats in the Assembly with advertising, objecting to the authority that Assembly Bill 350 would have given the California Air Resources Board to implement a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use.

Brown said he and the ARB could do more good without a deal.

“California is not going to miss a beat,” Brown said. “Be very clear about that. We don’t have a declaration in statute, but we have absolutely the same authority. We’re going forward. The only thing different is my zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree.”

Notwithstanding that Brown has appeared most times this year to possess a “zeal intensified to a maximum degree” (his remarks about human extinction and ecological collapse reflected intensity), the suggestion here was the power of Popeye.

A beat-down from Big Oil? For Brown, the equivalent of eating spinach.

Therefore, actually, what’s happened is that this has helped the cause of clean energy.

Gov. Jerry Brown

But the compromise Brown couldn’t stomach was only on his plate because of his own difficulties overcoming oil industry arguments in the Legislature. When the Senate passed Senate Bill 350 easily in June, it included the petroleum reduction mandate and preserved the ARB’s authority to implement the measure.

Then the California Drivers Alliance, a group funded by the Western States Petroleum Association, aired ads on radio and TV across the state, stoking fears of regulatory overreach.

The oil companies misleadingly warned that the measure would result in gas rationing, something the bill did not include, while rightfully pointing out that the bill did not detail how the ARB would reduce petroleum use. The bill’s critics said the bill would disproportionately affect poor people and residents of the Central Valley, where public transportation is limited.

In recent weeks, moderate Democrats in the Assembly called for amendments to give the Legislature more oversight over the Air Resources Board. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León drafted amendments to address some of those concerns, but they did not go far enough for reluctant lawmakers.

By the time the bill reached the lower house, Brown and de León couldn’t even get a floor vote. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins said “it looked like we wouldn’t” have enough votes to pass the bill.

At other times, not having sufficient support to pass a bill has proved less of an obstacle for Brown. He stalks the halls – or his executive secretary, Nancy McFadden, does – and votes change.

In 2013, Brown said, “When things get a bit stalled, I like to ... provide a bit of catalyst,” and he reminded reporters of his track record when asked about negotiations over road funding last month.

“As a brooding omnipresence,” he said, “I stand above the fray here.”

Having joined the fray this week, Brown characterized the lack of an agreement on transportation funding as only a delay, while acknowledging oil companies “won a skirmish” on the petroleum measure.

The following day, another major climate bill fell when the author of Senate Bill 32, which sought to dramatically increase California’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, said the legislation would not get another vote in the Assembly before the legislative session ends this week.

In a prepared statement, Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, said the Assembly and the Brown administration “were not supportive, for now, and we could not pass this important proposal.”

At his news conference Wednesday, Brown offered reason to be positive in defeat, riffing on his familiar complaint that reporters don’t write enough about climate change.

“The only way we get the message out is through conflict,” he said. “And so therefore, actually, what’s happened is that this has helped the cause of clean energy.”

Brown noted that support for the rights of gay people was lower when voters rejected a 1978 measure to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. The campaign, he said, “opened up the legitimacy of that debate and pushed forward the building of political support” for gay rights.

“I believe that even though we always like to win, and it would be quite something if the state of California went on record as saying, ‘Cut petroleum 50 percent,’ well, we didn’t get that,” Brown said. “But we got a big brouhaha, and it’s the beginning of many more brouhahas, and at least you’ll have to report about them, because that’s your business: Brouhaha.”

It is not clear that Brown needs any brouhaha to persuade the public on climate change in heavily Democratic California. According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll, majorities of adults favored the components of SB 350, including reducing petroleum.

Nor is Brown’s legacy likely to suffer from one legislative setback. California is a world leader on climate change, and environmentalists celebrate Brown not only in California, but around the world.

But standing beside Brown at the news conference Wednesday was the bill’s author, a Senate leader who does not have Brown’s credentials on the issue – and who is seeking to build some.

De León stepped in when Brown was asked, given his executive authority to reduce emissions, if fighting it out in the Legislature was even necessary.

It was, de León said, because laws are more enduring than any one governor.

“Governor Brown is not going to be here in perpetuity,” he said. “You know, he ends in 2018.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders