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California Environmentalists Decry Governor’s Raid on Cap-and-Trade Dollars

San Francisco Public Press
 — May 17 2013 - 3:47pm

Gov. Jerry Brown’s effort to divert $500 million earmarked for environmental initiatives into the general fund would hurt California communities with high pollution levels and slow down efforts to spur efficiency, mass transit and alternative energy, critics told legislators this week.

The state’s environmental officials have been developing programs to fund a range of programs in communities disadvantaged by environmental burdens. The money comes from auctions of greenhouse gas permits from the state’s new cap-and-trade pollution control marketplace.

The program would have given grants for energy efficiency, solar energy installation, urban forestry, public transit infrastructure and affordable, transit-oriented, walkable communities where cars are less necessary.

But in releasing his proposed May revision to the state budget Wednesday, Brown said some programs and services were not ready to roll out, so the money could not be put to immediate use. He said the plan was to repay the borrowed money to the fund later, with interest.

But several environmental groups immediately announced opposition to the proposal, saying that if it remains in the final version of the budget this summer it would halt their plans to roll out an array of green initiatives in 2013 and 2014.

On Wednesday, more than 50 people spoke out against the proposal during public comment at an Assembly budget hearing in Sacramento.

“These communities are the ones who have been waiting for these investments for a very long time and haven’t seen investments in our economic recovery yet,” said Ryan Young, legal counsel for the Greenlining Institute, a Berkeley-based civil rights and environmental advocacy group. “How we treat this first year is critical.”

Young said hundreds of local groups representing low-income and minority communities have offered suggestions at workshops across the state and in Sacramento about how to spend the money. His group endorsed Senate Bill 535, which required the California Environmental Protection Agency to identify disadvantaged communities for investment opportunities.

“We disagree with the logic that they’re not ready yet to see which programs to fund,” Young said. “We think it’s a mistake to depart from that plan.”

The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 requires the state to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. When environmentalists defeated a 2010 measure on the ballot that would have suspended the climate change law, activists attributed the victory to the participation of minority voters.

Senate Bill 535 had 200 supporters, which developed five priority programs for the near term. Groups could spend the money during the first year of the investment plan.

“It was shovel ready,” said Mari Rose Taruc, organizing director of the Oakland-based Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

Though the groups were focusing on the first year of investments, they also had larger goals for years beyond 2014.

Brown’s proposal must still go through state budget process, lasting through the end of June. Until then, environmental groups will be lobbying heavily to get back the promised funds.

The critics argue that revenue from the cap-and-trade program, first envisioned in the law, Assembly Bill 32 of 2006, cannot be used for the general fund because it is considered to be fees, not taxes. When the state collects fees, they have to be used for programs related to them.

“We’ve been engaging hundreds of people in developing ideas around how we can get cleaner air, advance AB 32, and I feel like all of that process was misleading,” Taruc said. “It’s like being on the playground and we had lunch money to buy ourselves clean air, and all of a sudden a bully came along and took our money. We need help from the Legislature to get our money back.”

Some industry groups are also weighing in on Brown’s budget move.

“My business members believe there are immediate opportunities to invest auction proceeds in ways that benefit the public interest,” said Susan Frank,
director of the California Business Alliance for a Green Economy. “Delaying the expenditure of those proceeds seems inconsistent with the state’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and growing the clean-energy economy.”