In the late 1990s, after vehicle Smog legislation was enacted to require that every car in California meet specific air-quality standards, a bill was passed that exempted every vehicle in the Bay Area.
It was not that the cars of Bay Area residents didn’t pollute as much as cars in other parts of California. They did. But the emissions coming from those cars would be carried by ocean breezes into the Central Valley and become someone else’s problem. Our problem.
Bay Area legislators weren’t troubled by this. Many fought efforts to impose the requirements on cars in their region, even though their cars were equal contributors to California’s problem. Efforts of Valley legislators to reverse the Bay Area’s carve-out succeeded only after legal actions, but for a significant time, they did not have to meet the same costly requirements faced by the rest of California.
It was regionalism at its worst.
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It is ironic that some now accuse Valley representatives of regionalism because they lack enthusiasm for Sen. Kevin De León’s climate bill – SB 350. In fact, the bill will cost residents in the Central Valley far more than it will cost anyone else in California. It fails to require a proportional cost share and appears to go out of its way to penalize the very resources we have and have developed in the Valley.
AB 350 mandates a 50 percent reduction of petroleum use, but in the Valley – more than anywhere else in California – that means reducing jobs, businesses and opportunities. The Valley’s No. 1 industry, agriculture, is dependent on transportation by both trucks (produce) and cars (labor). We commute farther to our jobs than anyone else and have the least access to public transportation. We also have some of the highest levels of poverty and unemployment in the nation. Yet SB 350 puts these disadvantaged communities first in line to pay more and offers almost nothing in return.
Last year, as chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, I requested a study of the tax credits California offered to electric car buyers. We offer these incentives to increase the affordability of these low-polluting cars for middle- and low-income Californians. The study proved my suspicion that these credits almost exclusively benefit our wealthiest residents.
Seventy-eight percent of the credits went to buyers who earn more than $100,000 annually.
The Air Resources Board’s fix was to exclude people with incomes over $500,000 from receiving the credit. Showing just how out of touch these unelected bureaucrats are, the board defended its practice of using state dollars to help people making $450,000 per year pay for their new electric vehicles. Let’s put that in perspective. In Merced County, the median income is under $30,000 a year; the median income per household is only $35,500.
SB 350 would significantly expand the Air Resources Board’s already almost unlimited authority to determine how California will meet these new targets, cutting the Legislature out of the process with no review or approval necessary. Giving unelected regulators blank checks to meet goals without oversight ignores our basic responsibility as legislators. It empowers bureaucrats, accountable to no one, to make the important decisions.
One of the clean-energy resources we have built in the Valley are dams. As a byproduct of California’s vast water infrastructure, dams provide abundant hydroelectricity, entirely free of greenhouse gas emission. But current law, and SB 350, does not allow it to count as renewable. Local Valley ratepayers, who already bear the cost of hydro generation facilities, have to pay additional costs for more expensive “renewable” power that falls into De León’s preferred definition – generated in solar farms or by wind turbines. Very few would argue that hydroelectric is not renewable, but in SB 350, the Valley loses on that point, too.
The Valley’s representatives have asked for amendments that recognize that climate change costs must be shared by all and require the revenue produced by the legislation be focused where impacts are the greatest. They also wants the final decisions made by elected officials directly accountable to the voters. It is wrong to dismiss this as regionalism. It is fundamentally good public policy.
Adam Gray represents the 21st Assembly District, which includes all of Merced and part of Stanislaus counties.