The strong gravitational pull of SB 350

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, center, is author of SB 350.
State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, center, is author of SB 350. The Associated Press

Legislators returning for a final four days of the session have plenty of work:

▪ Filling a $1 billion hole in health care budget and increasing payments for the care of developmentally disabled people.

▪ Paying for crumbling roads, and divvying up $2 billion-plus in cap-and-trade money.

▪ Regulating the unregulated medical marijuana trade, while weedy entrepreneurs and civil libertarians draft an initiative to authorize full legalization.

▪ Oh, and passing Senate Bill 350, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León’s magnum opus around which many other issues will revolve this week.

Gov. Jerry Brown could use his executive power to implement the bill’s goals. But SB 350 has become symbolic, and Brown has become invested, understanding that its defeat would reflect badly as he builds his legacy by fighting climate change.

GOP legislators oppose the bill. De León’s fight is with business-backed Democrats in the Assembly who seek restrictions on the California Air Resources Board’s ability to pursue its mission of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

Certainly, legislators should exercise greater oversight of executive branch departments. The air board should be more transparent. But any attempt to undermine the board should not be jammed through as part of some late-hour legislative compromise.

On Monday, outgoing Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen tweeted – negotiations are carried out in 140-character statements these days – “Total amount of tax increases leg Democrats have proposed this year = over $32 Billion!!! Californians already pay enough.”

That suggests Republicans for now won’t vote to reinstate a $1 billion tax on managed care organizations, which will expire next year. That would leave a $1 billion budget hole. Brown properly could respond by vetoing bills to increase spending.

Taking Olsen at her tweeted word, Republicans won’t vote for a gasoline tax hike to fund road maintenance. There could, however, be a deal if Democrats agree to spend some of the $2 billion in cap-and-trade money on roads, although the point of the program is to reduce our carbon footprint, not make it more convenient to burn fossil fuel.

In exchange, Republicans might vote to extend cap and trade, which could expire in 2020, and the $2 billion-plus it generates for the state. But to stay true to their anti-tax views, Republicans would have to define cap-and-trade revenue as something other than a tax. Although not directly related, a cap-and-trade extension is linked to SB 350, which would reduce gasoline taxes by cutting gasoline use.

The Legislature should find a way to fund highways, extend the health care tax and approve SB 350. Reducing petroleum use by 50 percent, as envisioned by SB 350, is worth pursuing. But SB 350’s supporters should not want the deal so badly that they’re unwilling to walk away from the bargaining table.