Fourteen Democratic lawmakers pushed for a California Green New Deal in January. It was supposed to be bold and big, accelerating the state’s climate goals amid the threat of drought, sea-level rise and deadly wildfires. Many environmental advocates loved the broad bill that was supposed to get fleshed out this session because it aimed to tackle climate change equitably.
“Our disadvantaged communities, our communities of color … may have been an afterthought with respect to the fossil fuel economy and the harm it caused for them,” the bill’s lead author, Oakland Democratic Assembly member Rob Bonta, said in January.
The bill is a spinoff of the national Green New Deal — which was sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — that failed to pass. Bonta says his bill takes the federal vision and applies it to California.
But Bonta’s bill, AB 1839, could be pushed back to next year or massively scaled down in part because the state budget from January is “no longer operable,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom in early April. A revised budget could come out as early as May 15.
When it comes to legislative priorities, some lawmakers think many bills will be pushed to future legislative sessions. State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told Capradio in early April, “I think any bill with a big financial price tag is something we're going to have to take a much closer look at.”
Assembly member Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, told CapRadio in March that he thinks the budget will only have extra funds for “coronavirus [aid], possibly homelessness, maybe wildfires, but I think really, that’s about it.
“Many of the governor’s proposals that we were all very excited about in January are probably going to be put on the back burner,” he said.
To align with those priorities Bonta says the bill will most likely change dramatically.
“The Green New Deal definitely is consistent with those principles, but it might be too big on some of the financial ambition of it … so we might want to just narrow it to those economic recovery components,” said Bonta.
But he says the Green New Deal is needed more now than ever and its tenets — equity and “rescuing our planet by addressing our climate crisis” — are consistent with California’s COVID-19 recovery goals.
“I'm hopeful and optimistic that we're going to get something done,” Bonta said. “That’s important as a down payment on the California Geen New Deal this year because it's pressing and urgent and it can’t wait.”
He says more costly aspects of the bill could be pushed to a second or third future bill, but he says components of the Green New Deal already address key issues like wildfire and homelessness. For example, he wants to see a doubling of affordable housing as part of reducing homelessness by 75% and says the state could hire past prisoners that were on inmate fire crews to battle blazes.
Senator Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, says even though the state is going through the pandemic “we also need to keep our eye on the huge challenges that faced our state before COVID-19 that are still with us.”
He says the pandemic has “cast a very bright light” on challenges the state, and nation, are facing — like people living paycheck to paycheck.
“It's not sustainable to have so many people living on the edge while a small percentage of people (are) reaping the vast majority of the benefits of a growing economy,” Wiener said. “It's not sustainable to have ever-increasing carbon emissions that are literally burning up the planet and we see the results with wildfires.”
That’s why he says at the very least the principles of the Green New Deal need to be addressed aggressively in bills this legislative session. That may mean targeted bill packages. Wiener says he’s focusing on things like homelessness, mental health and food access.
“When you focus it creates an opportunity to do big things on the issues that affect people's lives the most … all those things will be challenged by climate change,” Wiener said.
Some environmental advocates — like Sylvia Chi, policy director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network — agree with this idea of making sure that equity is part of legislation, especially around environmental decisions, like investing in clean energy.
“If we don't look at it through equity then … clean energy becomes something for rich people.” —Sylvia Chi, policy director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network
“If we don't look at it through equity then … clean energy becomes something for rich people,” Chi said. “We want to make sure that solutions are available for everybody, we want to be inclusive. If we're going to transition to a post fossil fuel economy, it needs to include everyone.”
She says federal response — like the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program — have disproportionately benefited people who are more privileged. In response, she would like California lawmakers to make sure help and aid are “trickling down to the people who really need it.”
For example, she says equity could be a major factor in creating a post-COVID stimulus program to create jobs and infrastructure. That could come by looking at what census tracts have the most environmental burden “and say like, those are the communities and neighborhoods where we should have the first shovel-ready projects, and they should have local hiring requirements.”
It’s not just the progressive Green New Deal that may get cut this session. A Republican Green New Deal, AB 1848, could also be pushed to next year, said Palmdale Assembly member Tom Lackey.
The focus of Lackey’s bill is to provide $4 billion to the Southern California Regional Rail Authority from the High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Fund to fund improvements to the Metrolink commuter rail system. He wants to change commute patterns in his region where he says 35% of people have a two-hour commute and 91% of people drive to work.
“Most of them go to the Los Angeles area,” Lackey said of the around 80,000 commuters in his district.
Lackey — who spent nearly three decades as an officer with the California Highway Patrol — recognizes that all that driving comes with negative environmental and health consequences from poor air quality and collisions.
“This Republican New Deal is a commonsense solution to get cars off the road without spending new taxpayer dollars,” said Lackey in January. “High-speed rail is a disaster. It’s time to put that money towards projects that will actually do some good.”
The bill is sitting in the California Assembly Transportation Committee, and Lackey says it may likely never make it further.
“We know that there's only going to be a minuscule amount of the bills moving forward,” Lackey said. “So we don't really know what the status is going to be. We believe we have a good argument, but we'll be reasonable.”
He says his bill could actually work in concert with Bonta’s bill and wasn’t meant to be contrasting legislation.
“We believe that using the environmental benefit is very genuine,” he said. “It shows that we're also identifying with a bipartisan connection … because too often people that are Republicans don't necessarily have a reputation for having an interest in the environment.”
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