Capitol Alert

Lawmakers, Jerry Brown claim major political victory on climate change bills

Surmounting political obstacles to policies that have made California a national model on fighting climate change, lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a pair of bills to sustain the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In giving final approval to a pair of linked climate bills, lawmakers handed a victory to Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders, who called the measures essential to preserving the state’s ambitious climate program.

“This is a real commitment backed up by real power,” Brown said.

One of the measures, Senate Bill 32, would require California to slash greenhouse gas levels to 40 percent below their 1990 levels by 2030, extending the state’s authority to enact sweeping climate policies beyond an approaching 2020 limit. The other, Assembly Bill 197, sought to build support for those goals by giving legislators more power over the Air Resources Board. Brown is certain to sign both.

Both bills succeeded despite a lobbying push from the oil industry and reticence from business-oriented Democrats, whose combined resistance scuttled a major 2015 measure that would have mandated a 50 percent cut in California’s petroleum use. That setback fueled concerns that Brown and legislative allies would be unable to overcome the same forces in 2016.

“It isn’t only Donald Trump trying to stop the effort to clean up the air and to combat climate change. There are a lot of Trump-inspired acolytes that even walk the halls of this state Capitol. But they have been vanquished,” Brown said, alluding to the clout of oil companies and to the “very powerful lobbying by these organizations whose goal is to keep the Earth and California dirty.”

The twin legislative successes presage a battle over the state’s cap-and-trade program, which compels businesses to buy permits for the greenhouse gases they put into the air. Encumbered by a court challenge and two subpar auctions of emissions allowances, the system’s fate will likely be central to next year’s legislative session.

Without ruling out the possibility of putting cap and trade before voters with a ballot measure, Brown suggested that the bills passed this week would give him additional leverage over lawmakers who would prefer the flexibility and revenue stream of cap and trade to more onerous policies.

“They’re going to get commands to do things,” Brown said, “and they’re going to plead for a market system called cap and trade so they can respond in a way that’s more beneficial to their bottom line.”

The Senate sent SB 32 to Brown on Wednesday with a largely party-line 25-13 vote. Sen. Fran Pavley, a Democrat from Agoura Hills who authored the original regulation a decade ago, said the success of that law proved there was “not a false choice between a healthy environment and a sound economy” and urged colleagues to vote for SB 32 as a “market signal” of California’s commitment to its climate change strategy. That argument overrode Republicans who warned that it would only lead to higher energy costs and a further exodus of business out of the state.

“Come visit me in my county,” said Senate Republican Leader Jean Fuller of Bakersfield, referencing the loss of oil and gas jobs. “My sky is falling.”

Much of the political uncertainty had surrounded SB 32’s chances in the Assembly, where oil companies and business groups hold more sway. The bill passed the Assembly on a narrow vote on Tuesday in a reversal of the result from 2015, when a similar measure collapsed.

On Wednesday, Assembly members took up AB 197, which is tied to SB 32 so both must pass for either to become law, and advanced it on a 44-28 vote. The measure is intended to increase oversight of the state’s powerful Air Resources Board and to recalibrate climate policies toward poor communities, seeking to mollify legislators who had balked at what they called the ARB’s unbridled powers.

“It’s obvious … that (the Air Resources Board) has a credibility problem,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount. “This is a good first step toward addressing that.”

The bill would create six-year term limits for ARB members, add two nonvoting legislators to the board, create a new legislative committee with oversight on climate change policies and mandate that the ARB share more data with the Legislature.

“Many of us stayed off” of SB 32 in 2015 “because of the lack of oversight and accountability,” said Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, who argued that AB 197 would enact a policy of “people first when it comes to implementing our climate change policies.”

That AB 197 was carried by Garcia, who represents a sprawling inland district that suffers from higher poverty rates than wealthier coastal districts, reflects an effort to allay concerns that climate change policies disproportionately aid affluent Californians. The bill specifically mentions targeting policies to “disadvantaged communities” and requires an assessment of “social costs” in areas such as agriculture and energy prices.

“I don’t have the luxury, like some of the members here with wealthy communities, that only get to consider the environment. I have to consider the workforce as well,” said Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina Del Rey, who referenced well-paying jobs at a Chevron refinery in her district.

But that argument did not convince Republicans and some centrist Democrats, who have in the past resisted tougher climate mandates.

“How does this bill resolve the inequity of an Assembly district that receives over $70 million in (climate programs) and others that receive less than $1 million?” asked Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, who is facing an electoral challenge rooted in her opposition to prior climate legislation. “Where’s the transparency in this bill when it does not mandate an audit of the expenditures out of our state’s climate programs?”

The sole Republican who voted for SB 32 on Tuesday said that AB 197 “perpetuates the very flaws” in existing policies that overly empower the ARB.

“It fails to go far enough,” said Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin, who abstained on AB 197 after complaining that allowing the air board to report on its policies would be akin to “relying on your kids to self-discipline.”

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

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