Capitol Alert

AM Alert: Tom Steyer to help fund tobacco tax push

Gov. Jerry Brown, left, listens to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León as he announces they will abandon efforts this year to require a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by motor vehicles on Sept. 9, 2015.
Gov. Jerry Brown, left, listens to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León as he announces they will abandon efforts this year to require a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by motor vehicles on Sept. 9, 2015. The Sacramento Bee file

A new campaign to raise California's cigarette tax will reach into some deep pockets.

A formidable and well-funded coalition of California labor and medical groups pushing to fund healthcare with a tobacco tax have said all along that if they couldn’t get the idea through the Legislature, which they couldn’t this year, they would go to the ballot.

They’ll make good on that promise today with a flourish, revealing as they file their initiative that environmental mega-donor Tom Steyer has signed on to the campaign and pledged to contribute a yet-to-be-determined amount of his fortune.

When an oil industry blitz succeeded in stymieing a legislative effort to slash California’s oil and gas use, some frustrated liberals and environmentalists wondered why Steyer didn’t do more to counter the deep-pocketed opposition. Should this tobacco tax get enough signatures to make the ballot tobacco companies could spend tens of millions of dollars to extinguish it, as they did last time with Proposition 29, so Steyer’s money could be a decisive factor.

The initiative advocates are filing today would impose a $2-a-pack tax that would largely fund Medi-Cal. It would also tax e-cigarettes, the latest flashpoint in tobacco regulation wars as policymakers spar over whether the product should be regulated as tobacco.

SIGNING CLIMATE CHANGE: At the swearing-in for his unprecedented fourth term in January, Gov. Jerry Brown signaled his intention to make the fight against climate change the defining legacy of his late career. “We must demonstrate that reducing carbon is compatible with an abundant economy and human well-being,” he said, calling for sweeping changes to the state’s energy policies.

Nine months – and one revival of the insult “troglodyte” – later, Brown is set to sign Senate Bill 350, cementing several of those guidelines in California law and giving Brown arguably the biggest accomplishment yet for his climate agenda.

It was not easy; intense lobbying from the oil industry against a proposed 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by cars nearly sunk the measure. That mandate was stripped out in the final week of session as author Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León scrambled to boost flagging support, handing Brown a rare legislative defeat.

But what remains of SB 350 is still an ambitious goal for California, putting the state on a path to increase to 50 percent from a third the amount of electricity is generates from renewable sources, and to double the energy efficiency of buildings, over the next 15 years. Brown will celebrate with a high-profile signing ceremony, 10:30 a.m. at the scenic Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

Only five days remain before Brown’s deadline to act on legislation. What else does he has left to consider? Check out our updated gallery.

PRIMARY PROSPECTS: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is gaining on frontrunner Hillary Clinton in California as her support plummets. In a new Field Poll, Sanders’ support among likely Democratic voters in the state has rocketed 26 points since May, to 35 percent, while Clinton’s has dropped 19 points, to 47 percent. David Siders has more in his story from today’s paper, including how a potential run by Vice President Joe Biden would shake things up, as well as the public results and statistical tabulations from the poll.

ENERGETIC: Much of the wonkier debate around SB 350 dealt with the mechanics of how to generate and deliver renewable energy, including managing sources like solar that fluctuate throughout the day, and the future of how the state values rooftop solar panels. Big names will be mulling those topics at a daylong conference at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland, sponsored by the industry group the California Energy Efficiency Industry Council. Speakers will include Public Utilities Commission members Mike Florio and Carla Peterman, California Energy Commission member Andrew McAllister, and executives from major utilities, who will discuss the “brave new world for utilities.”

WOMEN AT WORK: With fanfare that included national media coverage and a gubernatorial signing ceremony, California has passed a law seeking to close the gender pay gap by requiring women to be paid the same as men for “substantially similar” work and shielding employees from retaliation for comparing salaries. Today, a Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee hearing in San Francisco will explore the pay gap and other hurdles working women need to clear. Policy experts’ list of planned topics reads like a laundry list of bills Sacramento Democrats have pursued, among them: the minimum wage, family leave, work scheduling, access to childcare and the implications of the new equal-pay law.

Meanwhile, women interested in jumping into civic life by serving on an appointed board or commission can learn more at an event in San Ramon sponsored by California Women Lead. Speakers will include Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin; Brown’s appointments secretary, Mona Pasquil; and Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma.

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