Propositions Test Energy Mindset

By Published On: October 29, 2010

California the last eight years has enacted three groundbreaking pieces of legislation aimed at transitioning to alternative energy and shrinking our carbon footprint. In 2002, lawmakers passed a bill setting a 20 percent renewable mandate for electric utilities. Governor Gray Davis signed the legislation by then-Senator Byron Sher. The same year, Davis signed a measure by then-Assemblymember Fran Pavley that curbs greenhouse gas emissions from cars. Four years later, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved AB 32. That measure strives to cut the state’s contribution to global warming gases 30 percent by 2020. For the most part, Californians have accepted these laws, at least enough to not make them big political issues. At least that was the case when rents were expensive, credit was cheap, and jobs sprouted like new subdivisions. But since the economic downturn, Proposition 23 has loomed on the political horizon as an effective referendum on California’s energy mindset. The debate over Proposition 23, which would undo the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is fundamentally about the kind of energy we consume and how much we use. At its core is whether we’re going to continue business as usual and ignore warnings about climate change or whether we’ll move down a less fossil fuel-intensive path. Will we head towards a new energy frontier for the benefit of future generations or remain captive of old technology that’s not only dirty, but ultimately exhaustible? Naturally, there is fear in change, and Proposition 23 plays on that emotion. But clean technology companies see the state’s global warming and energy policies as a crucible that is forging a new industrial revolution. If Californians don’t sway, just maybe, they say, America has the hope of being a world leader in clean energy, rather than a laggard behind Germany, China, Japan, Spain, and other nations that are quickly moving ahead. That’s why what Californians decide next Tuesday is a big deal, not just for one of the world’s largest economies, but for other political territories too. If Californians vote their fears rather than their hopes, next week’s referendum on reducing global warming is likely to be a bust for the nation’s emerging clean energy industry, one of the few parts of the economy that’s growing right now and shows significant future potential. Although Proposition 23 is center stage, the outcome on Proposition 26 has the potential to influence the direction of energy policy too. It seeks to broaden the definition of a “tax,” and require that many state fees and charges be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature--no longer just a simple majority. To get an idea of the impact, consider how smoothly the process of passing a state budget is because of the “super majority” requirement. The initiative could halt much of the work in the state and cause the budget deficit to balloon, which in turn would put far greater pressure on already squeezed state energy agency budgets. At issue is “who should be required to pay costs related to monitoring, studying, and mitigating adverse social and economic impacts associated with a product or activity,” according to an analysis by the California Budget Project. Proposition 26 “would likely shift the burden of payment from fees imposed on a limited group of fee payers, to taxes paid by society as a whole.”

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