Prop. 39 gets OK from environmentalists

kyamamura@sacbee.comOctober 12, 2012 

SACRAMENTO -- Whenever Allen Young walks into his office at The Met High School, he gets a reminder of his teenage years.

Look up, the principal says of the cozy downtown campus. Pristine wood planks lining the entryway ceiling once lived as bleachers at his alma mater.

The Met, a Sacramento City Unified charter school, had a $7.5 million renovation last year driven by green energy guidelines. Insulation consists of recycled blue jeans. Countertops were once glass jars. Bathrooms have high-tech "airblade" dryers, and nary a paper towel is found.

Environmentalists say Proposition 39, which raises California taxes on companies based elsewhere, would help aging schools upgrade their campuses like The Met has.

The initiative provides about a half-billion dollars annually for five years to retrofit schools and government offices, as well as help private building owners access green energy loans. Legislators decide how to spend the money under loose job-creation and cost-benefit guidelines, in consultation with state energy regulators and with review by an oversight board."

Most Proposition 39 talk has focused on its tax element -- a change to the state's corporate tax law requiring most companies to calculate their liability on how much they sell to Californians. It would generate about $1.1 billion annually, half going to green energy projects, half going to the state budget.

Critics say the state already has gobs of money going toward green energy subsidies, and they fear lawmakers will simply raid the funds for other budget purpose. But environmentalists are thrilled by the prospect, which they say would help cash-strapped schools.

It is hard to quantify how much upgrade potential exists in California's 10,000 schools. A University of California at Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools report in June estimated that $117 billion in investments are needed for K-12 buildings. But the report also found that California lacks sufficient data and needs better planning.

Clean energy proponents say California must modernize its buildings to help the state meet its strict target of reducing greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020. K-12 schools such as The Met have embarked on green energy projects using local bond funds and other district money. Others have explored solar panels to fix electricity costs. The 2,000-student Golden Valley Unified School District in Madera installed $6 million in solar panels on shade structures and unused land this summer with government rebates and a low-interest loan from the California Energy Commission.

Superintendent Andy Alvarado said the district locked in energy costs for two decades at about $385,000 a year -- the same cost it was paying to use the grid. "With the current financial situation in California, and how that has impacted the schools, we're just trying to figure out how to control costs," Alvarado said.

Joe Caves, the veteran writer of environmental initiatives who drafted Proposition 39, said the state could leverage the new money by matching local dollars for green energy upgrades.

Money would not be limited to public buildings. The initiative provides funding for local governments to finance alternative energy projects on private property. Owners would agree to pay for installation through a property tax assessment that stays with the building.

Still, business groups and anti-tax activists question the need. The state will launch California's first carbon credit auction in November, raising $1 billion from businesses for greenhouse gas reduction. The state Public Utilities Commission also dedicated $3.1 billion from utility customers for energy efficiency in 2010-2012, according to the state legislative research.

"California already raises billions of dollars for energy efficiency programs," said Gino DiCaro, spokesman for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. "(Prop. 39) is not something that is needed at all, especially when it's a tax increase on manufacturers in California."

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