Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Prop. 39’s criticism isn’t valid

Kevin de León, the president pro tem of the state Senate, and billionaire Tom Steyer have an odd-bedfellows political alliance.

Currently, they are pushing de León’s bill that would greatly expand California’s program of reducing carbon emissions, the most controversial feature of which would be a 50 percent reduction in the use of petroleum-based auto fuel.

While de León is Mr. Inside, hunting for votes in the Assembly for Senate Bill 350, Steyer is Mr. Outside, financing media and outreach efforts to counter a campaign being waged against the bill by the oil industry.

Their first major joint effort, however, was a 2012 ballot measure, Proposition 39, that changed how incomes of multistate corporations are taxed. They characterized it as closing a loophole and promised voters it would raise at least a half-billion dollars a year that would be spent on projects that would save energy and create thousands of new jobs.

A few days ago, The Associated Press distributed a lengthy article declaring that three years after its passage, “barely one-tenth of the promised jobs have been created, and the state has no comprehensive list to show how much work has been done or how much energy has been saved.”

The story triggered criticism from politicians and newspaper editorialists and calls for legislative hearings on Proposition 39’s alleged shortcomings.

In some respects, the Proposition 39 tempest has become a proxy war for the battle over the far-more-important Senate Bill 350.

But it’s a bad rap.

De León and Steyer probably puffed up Proposition 39’s positive potential three years ago. But that’s the nature of political campaigns.

Clearly the measure hasn’t generated the level of revenue they touted, because some corporate executives found ways to sidestep it.

However, De León says, “It’s really too early for any oversight because it’s barely off the ground.”

He makes a valid point, as shown by data from the California Energy Commission, which is administering energy conservation grants to K-12 schools, and the state community colleges system.

It took about eight months for the Legislature to decide how the money was to be spent and many more months for the Energy Commission to go through the elaborate bureaucratic process of setting up guidelines for grant applications. And then the applicants had to prepare their paperwork.

In fact, money has been flowing to school districts for scarcely a year. But the CEC has about 500 projects in the pipeline, plus another 450 in community colleges.

This is not to say that Proposition 39 was the right policy. It exemplified two questionable political trends – making tax policy by political whim and “ballot box budgeting” that earmarks specific revenue for certain favored programs and projects and makes writing a state budget more inflexible.

But it is what it is. The voters bought into it, and the money it raises seems to be going to programs it was supposed to finance.