Juice: Prop. 39 & Local Creativity

By Published On: May 17, 2013

It’s all about kids. California voters passed Proposition 39 last year to make schools and local governments more energy efficient, even self-sufficient, so they could lower their costs and provide undiminished, or even better, service to today’s youth and future generations. So as lawmakers in Sacramento debate how to allocate and administer Prop. 39 revenue, sure they should set parameters that insure energy savings, but also they should give the kids some say (and for that matter, local school boards, community college trustees, city councils and commissions, local businesses, even the PTA). Don’t turn Prop. 39 into a top-down program administered remotely from Sacramento and San Francisco. Let the energy agencies establish guidelines, but not to the extent they eliminate local variation and imagination. Make Prop. 39 implementation a lively grassroots movement that engages and inspires local leaders, civic activists, and students to imagine a cleaner and brighter energy and environmental future. Prop. 39 closes a corporate income tax loophole for companies that operate in California, as well as other states. It’s expected to raise $1.1 billion annually for the state’s general fund, $550 million of which for the first five years is to go to creating clean energy jobs by funding energy efficiency and distributed solar energy projects at schools, colleges, universities, and other public buildings. The proposition did not specify how to distribute and administer the clean energy money, beyond that it be used to fund cost-effective projects that create jobs and are coordinated with the California Energy Commission and California Public Utilities Commission. It also called for audits reviewed by an appointed board. This leaves the Legislature in the position of having to create an administrative structure for the program. A number of competing bills and ideas are under discussion in the capitol. One of the key issues for lawmakers rightfully is to make sure the money is well used and not squandered. The Legislature also has to make sure the money is distributed fairly and that contracts for construction work are subject to open competition, rather than wired for those with political connections. Underlying these issues is the degree to which Sacramento dominates how the money is spent, versus giving localities and the people a fair amount of freedom to decide. Will lawmakers allow state agencies to set standards and spending priorities that are so specific they create a one-size-fits-all approach? Or will they allow communities sufficient latitude to engage people in determining what’s best to meet local needs. School districts and city and county halls are best equipped to identify and meet local needs. They are the levels of government closest to the people. There’s little question local governments do a better job of engaging people than federal, state, and even regional agencies, such as air pollution control districts. On any given night, you’ll find more people at local meetings at more locations than at just about any state government workshop. The record shows local communities have the motivation and talent to plan, develop, and manage complicated construction projects, from community centers and museums to schools, college campuses, and airports. To the extent they are not highly knowledgeable about energy, expertise abounds up and down the state in the form of consultants and managers who can facilitate local planning and projects. There even may be knowledgeable volunteers. For instance, where I live there are plenty of scientists and engineers with expertise in energy from the California Institute of Technology and Jet Propulsion Laboratory who can give good advice on how to make schools and public buildings more energy efficient and how to integrate clean energy. Likewise, there are plenty of skilled business owners and workers in the construction trades who would love the chance to take on new projects. The situation is much the same up and down the state. That’s why in setting up an administrative structure for clean energy funds legislators should act with trust and hope that communities can do a good job, rather than with fear that if the state doesn’t maintain tight reins the money will be wasted. They should make sure that the criteria for project eligibility are broad. They should make sure that each community gets a share of the money and gets to determine how best to use it. There is not a school, city, or county in the state that could not benefit from energy efficiency and solar energy, nor one that doesn’t need new job opportunities. An ancillary benefit of allowing local communities latitude is that it can turn local civic leaders into enthusiasts for advancing the state’s energy goals. It’s much easier for local civic leaders to create buzz that stimulates local residents and businesses to follow suit in their homes, stores, and operations than it is for remote state employees to do so. Giving them ownership can create excitement, where handing them top-down edicts under rigid administrative standards can make them skeptics about energy goals by turning what could be creative into bureaucratic drudgery. Some schools, for instance, may benefit from being able to open windows to cool buildings on hot days so they don’t have to use air conditioning, while others in inland areas along freeways may need HVAC systems with filters and tight seals that allow pressurization of buildings to prevent infiltration of auto exhaust from the outside. A state study in the last decade showed there are 173 campuses—about 2 percent attended by more than 150,000 students—within 500 feet of high-volume roadways that carry more than 50,000 vehicles a day. State school modernization money has been available to help retrofit these schools to filter inside air, but not all have benefited from the limited funding. Prop. 39 could give a boost both to energy savings and public health for some of these schools. While energy efficiency could be construed narrowly to pertain only to HVAC, insulation, windows, lighting, and solar panels, in some situations greening schools with trees, shade structures, and garden rooftops can reduce energy use and make campuses more attractive. The community may place a higher value on these investments because they improve aesthetics, where insulation remains invisible. Gardens also can engage students and the community in environmental education and action. Likewise, for community colleges and state universities—particularly given Gov. Jerry Brown’s interest in distance learning—funding distance learning programs to reduce commuting to and from campuses may provide more energy efficiency for the buck than any other approach. Anybody who’s visited a state university in Southern California probably has observed the phenomenon of students idling in their cars waiting for parking places to open up in overburdened parking lots. Likewise, why have hundreds of students commute to a large lecture class—where there is no interaction— and pay to light and cool the room if they can watch the lecture at home? Why simply say “no” to such approaches, or others? Instead, as you race with best intentions to pass legislation to put Prop. 39’s clean energy money to work, remember it’s about the kids, just like you say in your speeches. Give them and their communities a chance, rather than all but shutting them out.

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