Editorials

Trust in short supply as Prop. 39 gets off to slow start

Billionaire Tom Steyer was the main promoter of Proposition 39 of 2012. Sen. Kevin de León, right, was a major backer, too.
Billionaire Tom Steyer was the main promoter of Proposition 39 of 2012. Sen. Kevin de León, right, was a major backer, too. Associated Press file

In 2012, Proposition 39’s promoters made bold promises: The initiative would generate $1 billion a year by shutting a corporate tax loophole, and earmark $500 million to combat climate change and provide good blue-collar jobs.

Several newspaper editorial boards endorsed the measure, The Sacramento Bee’s included, and voters overwhelmingly blessed it. It’s too early to call the measure a bust. But almost three years later, The Associated Press reports, “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 AP report comes at an inconvenient time for Democratic legislators who in the coming weeks will be pushing ambitious bills to combat climate change by, for example, cutting petroleum use by 50 percent by 2030. Why adopt new environmental measures, the counterargument will go, when the state has failed to properly implement existing measures?

Proposition 39’s supporters say it is working as expected. Billionaire Tom Steyer, Proposition 39’s main funder, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, another backer, issued a statement Monday, saying: “Californians in every region of the state will increasingly realize the full benefits of improvements that make schools stronger and more energy-efficient while building on our state’s position as America’s clean-energy jobs leader.”

They make reasonable points. It takes time to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars wisely. But in the campaign three years ago, promoters promised fast results, and officials responsible for making unbiased assessments of ballot measures made certain guarantees.

Political leaders understandably are anxious to focus on climate change, faced, as they are, with deepening public concerns. But as much as voters fret about the impact of climate change on themselves and generations to come, they hate being manipulated.

In the official voter pamphlet, Attorney General Kamala Harris summarized the measure by writing: “Dedicates $550 million annually for five years from anticipated increase in revenue for the purpose of funding projects that create energy efficiency and clean energy jobs in California.”

Steyer repeatedly said the measure would generate $1 billion annually, half of which, $500 million, would be earmarked for energy efficiency in each of the first five years after its passage.

“It will boost our state’s economy, create badly needed quality jobs and increase funding to our schools – all by closing an unfair tax loophole that currently benefits out-of-state corporations,” he wrote in an op-ed in 2012.

It turns out the revenue estimates were high. The California Department of Finance reports that Proposition 39 generated $464 million for energy efficiency in 2013-14 fiscal year, $352 million in 2014-15, and an estimated $360 million in 2015-16. That’s significant money, but not the $500 million promised.

The AP noted that much of the money given to schools so far has gone to consultants and energy auditors, that a board created to submit annual progress reports to the Legislature has never met, and only 1,700 jobs have materialized. Again, it’s early. But there were promises of 11,000 new jobs a year, most of them blue collar.

Political leaders understandably are anxious to focus on climate change, faced, as they are, with melting glaciers and public concerns. The Public Policy Institute of California’s survey last month showed 62 percent of this state’s voters believe impacts of global warming have begun.

But as much as voters fret about the impact of climate change on themselves and generations to come, they hate being manipulated.

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