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AB 32 Backlash Clouds Future of Smart Growth

Not long ago, when California's economy was booming and concerns about rising seas were mounting, California tapped into its environmentalist traditions to pass popular laws that promised to lead the nation in greenhouse gas mitigation. While there are no sure signs that the global climate has cooled, the same cannot be said for the state's support of anti-climate change legislation. 

In 2006, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 32, a comprehensive bill designed to limit carbon emissions in almost every sector of the state's economy. Two years later, it passed a complementary bill, Senate Bill 375, designed to help achieve AB 32's goals by encouraging cities to re-make their built environments and transportation networks in order to limit driving and thereby reduce vehicular emissions. SB 375 facilitates regional planning, promotes the tenets of smart growth and encourages cities to grow more dense (see William Fulton's blog Oct. 2008 and CP&DR's SB 375 Resources Page). 

"They're both pivotal," said Stuart Cohen, executive director of transportation advocacy group TransForm and member of the SB 375 Regional Targets Advisory Committee (RTAC). "Without getting our land use under control, [achieving greenhouse gas reductions] is basically impossible."

Impossible or not, this task is likely to become a great deal more difficult if any one of a number of proposals to suspend AB 32 or SB 375 comes to pass. 

AB 32 (Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica) charges the California Air Resources Board with devising and adopting emissions regulations by January 2011. SB 375 (Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento) requires CARB, with the advisement of RTAC, to develop regional greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, and the state's 18 metropolitan planning organizations must devise "sustainable communities strategies."

Those bills were passed in headier economic times. Now, as public support for global warming mitigation is faltering, the state's economy remains stuck in neutral, and developments are dying on the vine, California's landmark environmental legislation is under attack. AB 32 is facing a formal suspension in the form of a potential ballot initiative. And SB 375, though it is distinct from AB 32, is catching some of the AB 32 backlash as well as facing its own informal referenda.

"The main way that AB 32 reaches into local government's business is through SB 375," said League of California Cities Executive Director Chris McKenzie. "There's lot of support for the policy underlying SB 375 but there's a growing sense with the economy… [that] there ought to be some relief.

AB 32's near-term goal of reducing carbon emissions is in jeopardy due to a loose coalition of legislators, gubernatorial candidates, local officials, and backers of a ballot initiative who are all calling for a halt to its implementation. These opponents claim that the state's economic condition, including 12 percent unemployment and a budget crisis in Sacramento, make AB 32 too expensive.

"They're looking at this year as an opportunity, because of the global recession, to attack environmental regulations," said State Sen. Fran Pavley, who authored AB 32 while in the Assembly. "This one happens to be an initiative, but all regulations are under attack in California."

Vocal opposition to SB 375 has arisen from cities that consider its provisions onerous and, in particular, are concerned that they do not have sufficient funds to conduct the studies and plan updates that SB 375 calls for. Next week, the board of the League of California Cities will receive recommendations from four different committees about whether to support AB 32 and SB 375. Two of those committees have already recommended that the league ask the governor to suspend both laws. Based on the committees' final recommendations, the league's board could take positions on either, or both, laws as early as next week.

"It's not a discussion of the ballot measure," said McKenzie. "It's a question of whether the state is in such precarious economic condition and whether local governments and MPOs have had their own finances strained so much by the economy that...there ought to be some kind of delay."

McKenzie noted that many city officials are saying that they simply do not have the funding to do the planning and offer the transit that SB 375 promotes. Sande George, executive director of the California chapter of the American Planning Association, said that APACA will soon discuss the issue of AB 32 and SB 375 suspension but has taken no formal position.

The office of State Senator Darrell Steinberg, who authored SB 375, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The attack on California's global warming legislation began in earnest in January when Assembly Member Dan Logue (Republican-Chico) introduced Assembly Bill 118. In its original form, first filed in January 2009, AB 188 would have repealed AB 32 (see Paul Shigley's blog Jan. 27, 2009).  A subsequent version, which Logue revived early this year, would have suspended implementation of AB 32 until unemployment in California dropped to 5.5 percent. Logue contended that AB 32's regulations on greenhouse gas emissions would raise energy prices and exact a wide-ranging toll on the state's economy. 

"It would be a complete disaster…to implement AB 32," said Logue.  "It would shrink the economy and hurt the middle-class." 

Though AB 118 failed, a nearly identical voter initiative now appears destined for the November ballot. The "California Jobs Initiative," so called because of its backers' concerns for the economic impacts of AB 32, would suspend implementation of AB 32 until California's unemployment rate dips below 5.5 percent. However, upon review by Attorney General Jerry Brown, the initiative's title was changed to "Suspends air pollution control laws requiring major polluters to report and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming until employment drops below specified level for full year." 

The initiative's backers, who include members of the Tea Party movement as well as pubic officials from cities across the state, say they do not necessarily object to AB 32's environmental goals but rather believe that they represent expensive and undue top-down regulation. The initiative's supporters had hoped to collect the necessary 433,000 valid signatures by April 16. They missed that deadline but, with a new infusion of donations, have vowed to keep trying.

The "California Jobs Initiative" website points to survey results indicating that 56 percent of respondents oppose AB 32 after hearing arguments for it and against it. 

Cohen, who opposes the measure, said he expects that it will get on the ballot but also said, "We don't think it will pass.

"Our campaign… [is] not opposed to AB 32," said Anita Mangels, spokesperson for the "California Jobs Initiative." "We're simply concerned about the timetable for implementation of AB 32, and what the initiative would do is adjust the timetable for implementation so the economic impacts would not be as harsh."

Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has called for a one-year moratorium on AB 32's implementation, calling it "well intentioned. But…wrong for these challenging times" in an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News. Whitman has promised to suspend AB 32 if elected.

As these efforts have gained traction and headlines, concerns have risen among environmentalists and planners that a wholesale backlash against global warming mitigation and related regulations may be afoot.

"The same concerns relate to SB 375, and some of those concerns have been expressed to us by local governments themselves," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which is co-sponsoring the AB 32 suspension. "I think discussions involving AB 32 are going to necessarily entail discussions relating SB 375 as it relates to local governments.

"We've never been big fans of government policies trying to force people into concentrated areas," added Coupal.

Supporters of the "California Jobs Initiative," however, maintain that their efforts do not explicitly target SB 375. "SB 375 references AB 32, but it is legislation outside of the implementation of AB 32 that we're focused on," said Mangels.

Supporters of both AB 32 and SB 375 note that the two are independent and do not rely on each other to achieve their respective goals. However, both are considered fundamental components of the state's efforts to reduce emissions and, in the case of SB 375, to promote smart growth.

More formal challenges to SB 375 are a ways off, even if the "California Jobs Initiative" measure makes it on to the ballot and passes.

"SB 375, while it's referenced in the AB 32 scoping plan, is fully its own law right now," said TransForm's Cohen. "To be undone, it would have to be undone by the legislature, or it have to be undone by a wholly separate initiative."

"I think there's going to be a stronger movement to have the targets for greenhouse gas reductions in SB 375….to be less ambitious," added Cohen.                 

If implementation of SB 375 goes forward while that of AB 32 is delayed, its impact on carbon emissions is unlikely to compensate for the expected carbon reductions that would have been created by a fully implemented AB 32. Whether its facilitation of compact development and walkable environments would in and of itself draw protest remains to be seen.

"My own goal right now is to concentrate on AB 32," said Logue. "Once that's achieved, then we'll take a look at SB 375." 

Contacts:

Stuart Cohen, TransForm (510) 740-3150. 

Jon Coupal, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (916) 444-9950. 

Dan Logue, 3rd Assembly District  (916) 319-2003. 

Anita Mangels, "California Jobs Initiative" (888) 591-4442. 

Chris McKenzie, League of California Cities (916) 658-8200.

Fran Pavley, 23rd Senate District (916) 651-4023.

--Josh Stephens