By Dan Walters | CALmatters Commentary
“Desperate” may be too strong a word, but Gov. Jerry Brown, who aspires to global leadership of the climate change movement, very badly needs to renew “cap-and-trade” controls on California’s greenhouse gas emissions that will expire in 2020.
It’s one thing for Brown to join international leaders in issuing high-minded declarations on existential climate change perils, or to be treated as a head of state in Beijing, but quite another to persuade 81 state legislators in Sacramento to see things his way. They, unlike the soon-to-retire governor, will face whatever political consequences a more ambitious cap-and-trade system brings.
Brown’s evident eagerness to get it done stems from several factors, including the potential embarrassment if an aspiring global leader can’t sell it to his own Legislature.
And, of course, there’s the financial angle.
The state auctions emission allowances each quarter and recent proceeds have been spotty at best. Reauthorization, particularly before the next auction in August, would generate more action.
The state has been counting on about $2.5 billion a year from its share of the bid pool, and spending it looms large. Indeed, divvying up future proceeds is a major factor in backroom negotiations over renewal.
Brown has a particular interest in maximizing auction results because his pet bullet train project is highly dependent on cap-and-trade money, without which it probably dies.
All of that said, Brown has found that writing something that will garner the requisite two-thirds legislative votes is a tough slog. Self-imposed deadlines have come and gone, with the latest being the Legislature’s summer recess nine days hence. With that in mind, Brown and legislative leaders unveiled an extension bill late Monday, hoping to have votes on Thursday.
Democrats hold 27 seats in the Senate, and 54 in the Assembly, the exact number of votes Brown needs. Democratic Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez departed this week to take the Los Angeles congressional seat he won in a special election.
However, Brown has not had unanimous Democratic support because the issue divides his party. Its resurgent left wing doesn’t like cap and trade, saying it does not do enough to force business compliance with tight emission controls, not only for carbon emissions but other pollutants as well. A new companion bill addresses other forms of pollution in hopes of shoring up Democratic support.
Business wants fairly loose rules, important for getting to to the magic number of legislative votes. Brown probably needs at least a few Republicans who back business and have demands of their own, one of which—a suspension of a controversial firefighting fee on rural property—is included in the new cap-and-trade bill.
Meanwhile, the Republican right is telling GOP members to back off and let the Democrats fashion an emission control program by themselves. As Jon Fleischman, publisher of the influential FlashReport, wrote, “Let them announce it, let them own it, and let them campaign on it.”
Underlying Fleischman’s warning to Republicans, and the reluctance of some Democrats to join Brown, is uncertainty about the political fallout as emission allowances become more expensive and costs make their way into consumer prices.
The current program adds about a dime a gallon to gasoline costs, but that will increase sharply if it is renewed and the state works toward more ambitious carbon reduction goals for 2030 and beyond. So, too, will the effects on utility rates and other consumer items.
Democratic legislators have already voted this year for Brown’s plan to sharply increase direct gas taxes, a plan that polls say is unpopular with voters. A repeal measure could be on the ballot next year and one Democrat who voted for gas taxes, Sen. Josh Newman, faces a recall campaign.
Brown evidently believes the new bill will overcome all of that and give him the symbolic win he so earnestly, and perhaps desperately, wants.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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