2008 Scorecard: Year in Review


From beginning to end, the 2008 legislative session was dominated by one factor: the state budget. The first budget passed by the legislature was two and a half months late, and it was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. The legislature seemed poised to override the veto, which would have forced a political and constitutional crisis. Both were averted, at least for the time being, when a teetering agreement was reached.

Yet in the midst of the state’s ever-deepening budget problems—which are by no means resolved and will likely be even worse next year—the California League of Conservation Voters enjoyed its greatest legislative victory in its 36-year history with the enactment of SB 375 (Steinberg).

Sponsored by CLCV and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), SB 375 is a first-in-the-nation law that gives local and state officials the tools to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by making housing and transportation planning decisions that will reduce urban sprawl, long-distance commutes and vehicle miles traveled per household. SB 375 is not only an essential part of the state’s arsenal to meet its GHG reduction goals, as outlined in the landmark AB 32 legislation in 2006, but also the most important change in land use planning since the Coastal Act and the California Environmental Quality Act were approved in the mid-1970s.

The Dark Shadow of the State Budget

Given the fiscal environment, we are fortunate that SB 375 will have no measurable impact on the state’s general fund. In fact, all of the state’s natural resource and environmental protection programs consume less than two percent of the state’s general fund budget. By contrast, schools, health care, and prisons account for 95% of general fund spending.

But protection of natural resources and the environment is hardly immune from the state’s ongoing structural budget deficit. Agencies like the Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Parks and Recreation depend heavily on the general fund, particularly to pay essential personnel like game wardens and park rangers, and on unstable bond funds that must be renewed regularly by the voters. Although only five percent of the California Environmental Protection Agency’s budget comes from the general fund and most pollution reduction programs are funded by fees on polluting activities, both Cal/EPA and the Resources Agency took budget cuts this year.

In fact, the governor’s January budget proposal included the closure of 48 state parks (fully 17% of California’s state parks). As with President Clinton’s proposed shut-down of the Washington Monument when Congress failed to pass a budget, many saw Schwarzenegger’s park closure proposal as a signal to the public and the legislature of the extent of the state’s budget problem. In the end the governor responded to the self-generated pressure and restored almost all the funding for state parks.

Budget pressures were evident in other ways. In most years, bills face their toughest challenge on the Assembly and Senate floors. But this year the graveyards for many environmental bills were the appropriations committees, where bills with even minor costs ran headlong into the reality of a deep budget shortfall. The death rate was especially high in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which made it clear from the beginning of the year that it would be very tough on spending bills. The committee kept its word.

Although the 2008 Scorecard includes only 24 bills, CLCV and our Green California colleagues were lobbying more than 75 priority environmental bills as late as August. In the end, 42 of the bills made it to the governor, but 13 bills were killed in the Senate Appropriations Committee and five more, including two opposed by environmentalists, were held in Assembly Appropriations. Only six bills—fewer than usual—died on the Senate and Assembly floors.

Our Top Priorities

Of the 24 bills scored this year, two—SB 375 and SB 974 (Lowenthal)—were consensus top priorities of the environmental community, and had been since early 2007 when they were introduced. But they met very different fates.

SB 375 links land use decision and transportation planning in a single comprehensive regional process, by making climate change an explicit factor in land use planning and aligning transportation planning to support smart growth. For decades, far-flung housing developments have been built on cheap farmland and open space, further encouraged by an “if you build it they will come” approach to highway construction. For all its other negative social and environmental impacts—air pollution, traffic congestion, long commutes, loss of farmland and habitat—it was the emission of greenhouse gases that forced the state to come to terms with this unsustainable development pattern.

For 18 months, SB 375 was adamantly opposed by the home building industry and local governments as an attack on their authority and way of doing business. But CLCV, NRDC and Senator Steinberg took a “bend but don’t break” approach to the negotiations, which were long and difficult. In the last weeks of the session, the home builders and local governments finally joined with environmentalists in what Senator Steinberg called “the coalition of the impossible” to support a measure that:

  • Requires the Air Resources Board (ARB) to set regional targets for GHG reduction from cars and light trucks.
  • Requires regions to prepare a plan to meet the targets.
  • Limits funding only to transportation projects that are consistent with the plan.
  • Revises the environmental review process for housing projects that are consistent with the plan.

As with AB 32 two years ago, Governor Schwarzenegger almost vetoed SB 375. But a flurry of late memos, emails and phone calls to his staff turned the Governor into its latest, greatest supporter. In the days after its enactment, Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton called SB 375 the Legislature’s biggest achievement of 2008; the New York Times cited SB 375 as the latest evidence that “while Washington slept, most of the serious work on climate change has occurred in the states, and no state has worked harder than California.”

By contrast, the veto of SB 974 is the bitterest disappointment for CLCV and the environmental community. One year ago SB 974 was poised for its final legislative vote when Governor Schwarzenegger asked the author, Senator Alan Lowenthal, to hold the bill until 2008. Senator Lowenthal graciously acceded, but only with the governor’s assurance that he supported the bill’s goals and wanted only minor changes.

What happened to SB 974 in 2008 is a cautionary tale. Because it was ahead of the legislature’s two-year schedule, SB 974 languished on the Assembly floor for months while hundreds of new bills were heard. The governor and legislature focused on other pressing matters, especially the budget.

Despite occasional meetings among stakeholders, including the governor’s representatives, few issues were resolved—or even raised. The administration offered no amendments, despite Senator Lowenthal’s urging. After numerous unmet requests, Senator Lowenthal finally took the bill up, and it passed the Assembly on July 15.

Only then did the Schwarzenegger administration express its specific concerns, leading to a month of rancorous back-and-forth accusations of just the sort that Lowenthal sought to avoid. The administration’s demands, including increased funding to clean up trucks in the Central Valley and more ARB control over the funds, were hardly minor and risked losing support for the bill. The challenges probably could have been worked through, but not in the hothouse of the final weeks of the session. In the end, the bill was sent to the governor without the amendments he belatedly sought, and he vetoed the bill.

The ARB estimates that 3,700 deaths a year in California result directly from exposure to cancer-causing diesel pollution, and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are by far the single largest sources of air pollution in southern California. A mind-boggling 50% of all goods imported into the United States enters through the ports of LA, Long Beach and Oakland.

SB 974’s $30 fee on each shipping container passing through the ports would have funded improvements in port air quality and infrastructure. By passing a 2006 transportation bond (which will be repaid from the state’s general fund) with $1 billion to reduce port air pollution, California taxpayers are already paying their share. SB 974 would have spread the cost to all who benefit from the ports, including the nationwide consumers of the products that enter our ports.

The indefensible veto of SB 974 leaves the worst of all worlds: port pollution continues to grow, and the health in port communities continues to decline. Californians alone will pay to reduce pollution caused by international commerce, and multi-national manufacturers and retailers get off scot-free. It’s a shameful end after four years of hard work by Senator Lowenthal and the many supporters of SB 974.

Action on Other Key Scorecard Bills

Fifteen of the 24 scored bills were sent to the governor in 2008 and he signed nine, for a 60% score. In his five years in office, Governor Schwarzenegger’s score has stayed in a narrow range, from a low of 50% to a high of 63 percent. Among the most important of the bills he signed in 2008 are:

  • AB 31 (de Leon), which allocates $400 million from Proposition 84 (the 2006 parks/resources bond) to build and expand neighborhood parks in the most park-poor communities throughout California.
  • AB 2522 (Arambula), which authorizes the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District to increase the existing vehicle registration fee from $6 to up to $30 to reduce vehicular air pollution in the valley.
  • AB 2537 (Furutani), which continues, until 2012, to exempt volunteers who work on community projects like parks and trails from prevailing wage laws.
  • AB 2785 (Ruskin), which requires the Department of Fish & Game to compile a database of the state’s most critical wildlife corridors and habitat linkages.
  • AB 2911 (Wolk), which expands the authority of the state’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response program to inland, as well as marine, waters and requires the program to proactively search for and rescue oiled wildlife resulting from spills.
  • SB XX 1 (Perata, Steinberg and Machado), which allocates funds from existing water bonds to improve regional water and storm water management, restore Delta ecosystems, and make other near-term improvements in California's water systems.

Governor’s vetoes included:

  • AB 2447 (Jones), which would have required cities and counties to ensure that a new subdivision has adequate fire protection before approving the project.
  • AB 2455 (Laird), which would have increased transparency in the way the state appraises and buys land for parks and other conservation purposes.
  • AB 2939 (Hancock), which would have clarified that existing law allows cities and counties to adopt green building standards that exceed those adopted by the state.
  • SB 1113 (Migden), which would have allowed a court to award expert witness fees to the prevailing party in any legal action taken to enforce an important right affecting the public interest, such as environmental protection.
  • SB 1313 (Corbett), which would have prohibited the manufacture or sale of substances that contain cancer-causing perfluorinated compounds in concentration exceeding 10 parts per billion, when used in food containers or wrappings.

Breaking Ranks for the Environment

As repeat Scorecard readers know, getting Republican votes on pro-environmental bills is a daunting challenge. Unlike Republican voters statewide who, according to polls, support strong environmental laws, legislative Republicans often reflexively oppose bills to enact these laws.

That’s why CLCV is happy to note the emergence of a new caucus among Assembly Republicans: Energy, Environment and the Economy, better known as E3. Led by Assemblymen Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) and Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita), E3 is a venue for Republicans to identify and support bills that they believe deserve broader support among Republicans. At its most basic, E3 is evidence that some Republicans are personally at odds with the aggressive anti-environmentalism of their caucus.

In its first year, E3 had twelve members, and with two exceptions their scores are higher than others in the Republican caucus. Blakeslee led the pack with 43%, followed by Horton and Aghazarian at 38%. Now termed out, Horton has often been among the greenest Republicans; Aghazarian’s score is much higher than his previous years, but was influenced, we believe, by his race for a Democratic-leaning state Senate seat. Returning Republicans who scored better than their caucus include Berryhill, Adams and Smyth. Sharon Runner’s low score can be explained in part by her absences due to illness. Tran, however, was present for every vote and still got a goose-egg. (It should be noted that Senators Abel Maldonado and Tom Harman, though not members of E3, had scores of 44% and 33% respectively.)

The importance of E3 cannot be measured, however, only by floor votes. Indeed, none of the Scorecard bills that passed the Assembly would have failed even without the E3 votes. But environmental bills with bi-partisan support, even from only a few Republicans, often fare better on the governor’s desk. Republican support also makes it harder for our lobbying opponents to take Republican votes for granted. Pro-environment Republicans also help challenge the ideological anti-environmental viewpoint that too often afflicts Republican staff analyses, which their caucus depends on heavily. Finally, support for an environmental bill by E3 makes it harder politically for moderate Assembly Democrats to withhold their votes and defeat a bill.

These dynamics were especially evident in the final votes on AB 1879 and SB 509, the chemical reform bills supported by environmentalists and signed by the governor. For most of the year, the bills were strongly opposed by Republicans and a broad range of industries and were headed for a likely veto or defeat in the Legislature.

Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee saw an opportunity to amend the bills to be more closely aligned with the governor’s Green Chemistry Initiative, and his close work with Assemblyman Mike Feuer signaled to the industries that they should come to the table and negotiate. The end result was legislation that almost all environmental groups and a surprising number of industry stakeholders supported. Following Blakeslee’s leadership, 18 Assembly Republicans—a majority of the caucus—voted for AB 1879, and 16 voted for SB 509.

Green California Grows

Green California, the CLCV-sponsored project to organize and unify environmental advocacy in Sacramento, continued to expand its reach and influence in its third year of operation. In addition to distributing our list of priority bills to all legislators as floor votes were held in June and August, Green California also published numerous “Hot Lists” of key bills to be heard in important committee hearings during the year.

Though they require intensive preparation during periods of heavy committee hearings, the Hot Lists give legislators timely information on key bills in their committees and improve our ability to hold legislators accountable for their votes in committees as well as the floor. To improve communication between Green California members and legislators on our priority bills, every Hot List bill includes the name of a Green California member as a contact.

Green California also created a Budget Committee, comprising organizations whose issues are most dependent on decisions made in the annual budget bill. Early this year the Budget Committee identified key environmental budget issues and submitted proposals for protecting and enhancing funding in important natural resources programs.

The Outlook for 2009

Last year we asked whether there wasn’t a pattern in the way the legislature dealt with environmental bills. It appeared that pro-environmental legislation fared better in election years, possibly because legislators were more reticent to appear at odds with the voters on an issue that enjoys widespread public support. If so, what do we make of 2008?

One of our top priorities, SB 375, was signed into law. But that complicated bill probably owes its success more to the dogged determination of the author and sponsors than to any fears of an election-year backlash. After all, almost every Assembly and Senate district is safe for one of the parties. Our other top priority, SB 974, had a more visceral appeal to voters—reducing cancer-causing air pollution from the state’s ports—yet it was vetoed. Of course, the governor isn’t up for re-election.

But sometimes big events wash out discernible patterns, and that may be the case in 2008, when the challenge to balance the state budget overrode other considerations. We wish we could say it will be different in 2009, but if anything, the structural deficits in the state budget will only be worse next year, and they will be exacerbated by the dire economic conditions afflicting the country.

Other big events, however, may point to a path out of the morass—and it’s a green path. The national and international economic crisis that broke open in September revealed an unsustainable economic system too dependent on consumption, borrowing and blind faith at the expense of productivity and the manufacture of tangible goods. It is not a stretch to note that those economic excesses also helped produce the world’s current climate change crisis.

California and the U.S. need high value jobs as the foundation of a restored economy; the economy needs to tap into the deep well of energy efficiency to achieve the increased productivity that is the hallmark of a growing and sustainable economy; and the planet needs clean technologies that use energy much more efficiently. All of which leads to green jobs. With our proven track record of economic benefits resulting from our aggressive energy efficiency standards, our commitment to GHG emission reductions under AB 32, and our history as an incubator for advanced technology industries, California is perfectly positioned to be a world leader in both clean tech and green jobs and to reap their economic and environmental benefits.

A recent study from UC Berkeley has determined that California’s plan to implement AB 32 will increase personal income in California by $48 billion and create up to 400,000 jobs by 2020. The incoming Senate President pro Tem, Darrell Steinberg, has signaled his strong interest in promoting green jobs. And Governor Schwarzenegger, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Steinberg all have talked about their strong desire to work more cooperatively to address the state’s biggest challenges, including global warming, the budget and the state’s weak economy. A unified commitment to clean tech and green jobs would be a very smart place to start.


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2018 California Environmental Scorecard

New for the 2018 legislative session: The 45th annual California Environmental Scorecard rates elected officials on 2018, another successful year for the environment in spite of heavy opposition from polluting industry.

Find out how your legislators did in 2018 in CLCV's California Environmental Scorecard.