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Preeti Vissa

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Battle Brewing in California over Climate Change Funds

Posted: 05/28/2013 7:23 pm

California has led the nation in attacking climate change, setting up a cap-and-trade program to charge polluters for greenhouse gas emissions, with the money going to reduce pollution and boost the clean energy economy. Now it could lead the nation in hijacking the funds for other purposes, leaving the state's citizens disappointed and angry.

This is serious, and not just for Californians. My state could be about to set a really unfortunate precedent.

California, like many states, has been digging itself out of a deep financial hole. The good news is that we are digging our way out, in part because voters approved some modest tax increases last year and in part because the economy is picking up, generating more revenue from income and sales taxes.

That's why community groups were floored earlier this month when Gov. Jerry Brown proposed borrowing $500 million from the fund generated by carbon auctions -- more money than the auctions have yet raised -- for the state general fund. Green groups, environmental justice activists and advocates for low-income communities were shocked, and rightly so.

The state law that laid the groundwork for the program, AB 32, specified that money raised from fees on polluters must be used to carry out the purposes of the law -- i.e. cutting climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing pollution and promoting clean energy. Last year, legislation that my organization sponsored put more teeth into that provision by designating a percentage of these funds to go to projects in economically disadvantaged and highly polluted communities.

Everything was moving along just fine. The California Environmental Protection Agency developed an excellent screening tool to pinpoint the communities most in need. Advocates and community leaders have identified shovel-ready projects that can be funded immediately. These projects -- including solar programs for low-income Californians, increased access to transit, affordable transit-oriented development, and community greening -- will save energy, reduce pollution and create desperately-needed jobs and opportunities for small businesses.

Let's be blunt: Low-income communities -- typically neighborhoods whose residents are mostly people of color -- were used for far too long as environmental dumping grounds. Dirty, polluting facilities were placed in these neighborhoods because the people living there had no political power. It's not a coincidence that these neighborhoods have suffered most from the struggling economy, often with horrifyingly high rates of unemployment and home foreclosures.

But in his revised budget released earlier this month, Gov. Brown proposed borrowing essentially all the funds the cap-and-trade program is likely to generate this year -- with a vague promise of repayment with interest but with no guaranteed date for that repayment. He did this based on hyper-conservative revenue projections: California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst projects over $3 billion more in revenue than the governor's office.

This is a terrible idea on several levels. Fiscally, it's not necessary. It will harm our state's most vulnerable communities, communities that have been hurt first and worst by both pollution and the Great Recession. It welches on promises made to those communities, who stood up for AB 32 when it was under attack by an oil company-sponsored ballot proposition in 2010. And it tells other states contemplating climate change programs that any money they generate can be used as a slush fund.

It's also terrible politics, for both major parties. California Democrats have swept into historic domination of state politics via the votes of the African-American, Latino, Asian and low-income voters who will be most hurt by the governor's proposal. Brown, let us remember, lost the white vote. Voters of color were his victory margin. All of it.

And Republicans, if they want to get back into the game, simply cannot ignore these voters. Voters of color care about the environment and want jobs and opportunities in their communities. This is a chance for the state GOP to do the right thing, both morally and politically.

How this ultimately plays out will be decided by the California legislature as it finalizes the state budget over the next several weeks. The well-being of millions of Californians and two political parties hangs in the balance.

 

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