April 16, 2014

2013: year of division in the Capitol

Sierra Club California logo.We are unlikely to ever again witness a year like 2013 in the State Capitol.

The year began with 39 new members of the legislature, 38 of them in the 80-member Assembly. It was the largest freshman class since 1966. And Democrats began the year with a two-thirds majority in both houses, something that hadn’t happened in 130 years.

Additionally, the freshman class represented the first group to start its career in Sacramento after winning in open primaries, a system that tends to favor moderates.

Finally, that freshman class was the first to benefit from a new law allowing legislators to serve a full 12 years in one house. After term limits were passed in 1990, assemblymembers had to give up their seats after six years, and senators were out after eight years. The prospect of spending a full 12 years in a single office seemed to calm the sense of urgency to act that has followed other recent classes into office.

So how did the environment fare amid this weird alignment of rare events?

So-so state of environmental legislation

Bills to give the Coastal Commission, the regulatory agency responsible for enforcing the Coastal Act, modest new enforcement powers failed. Bills designed to protect public health and the environment from oil-industry fracking pollution failed or got hijacked by the oil industry before passing. Bills that put millions of acres of forest land at greater risk of mismanagement and irresponsible logging passed.

On the brighter side, a couple of energy bills passed that provide opportunities for new rooftop and shared solar installations. Bills passed that build on long-time efforts to ensure that every Californian has clean water to drink. A bill to protect bobcats from certain kinds of trapping passed, as did one to require hunters to get the lead out of their bullets.

What does this so-so state of environmental legislation say about the power of environmental advocacy in the legislature?

Financial power counts

The financial power of regulated industries is strong in the Capitol, and environmentalists begin each year at a disadvantage. The regulated industries have more lobbyists to develop relationships with legislators and staff and to cover a range of issues. They also have more money to spend on advertising and other communication tools to get their message across.

According to figures collected by the secretary of state, in the first six months of this year, the oil-and-gas industry spent more than $6 million on lobbying, the real estate industry spent more than $3 million, and utilities spent about $6 million.

In contrast, the four environmental groups most active in the Capitol spent a combined total of about $360,000 during that same period. That’s all together.

That financial advantage was evident as the oil industry, especially, managed to eliminate the good bills governing fracking. Then industry interests hijacked the last bill standing, SB4, driving away even the most ardent environmental supporters in the last days of the legislative session.

It was also evident when farm trade associations teamed with the logging industry to jam through a late-session gut-and-amend (AB 744) that will help loggers circumvent timber-harvest planning requirements under the guise of fire prevention. Perversely, logging larger trees—the bill’s core provision—takes out many of the most fire-resistant trees from the forest.

Public support counts too

To our advantage, environmental advocates have public support. Public-opinion surveys consistently show that Californians care about the environment. They want strong regulation. They don’t think their elected officials are doing enough to stop climate change’s effects.

But we haven’t been as effective as needed in translating that public sentiment into district-level pressure. District-level constituent contact is our best weapon. It helps ambitious legislators remember their constituents when faced with pressure or enticement from a polluting industry.

The Great Recession has certainly played a role in the limited success of environmental measures. Polluting industries have played on nervous elected officials’ lack of solutions to the bad economy. They have successfully lobbied for weakening environmental protections, implicitly arguing that only by polluting could we create enough jobs in California.

Disappointing willingness to settle

But something else has been at play: the willingness to settle. Legislators have been willing to settle for less, even as all the science suggests we have to do more and do it now if we are to save this state from the worst effects of climate disruption.

Too many environmental advocates have also been willing to settle for small wins and big compromises when the state of the world suggests that time is running out.

This year the averages on Sierra Club California’s scorecard are disappointingly low. That’s largely because we have included three bills on the list that split the environmental community.

Sierra Club California carried out the mission of the national organization and the state volunteers who lead us by opposing AB 904, AB 744, and SB 4. Built around the seed of good ideas, each was ultimately so flawed that they promised to leave unfixable damage in their wake.

In the end, the environmental community—including the Sierra Club—is not responsible for how legislators vote. We are not responsible for how the governor responds with vetoes and signatures. Elected officials are responsible for their own actions. This scorecard reports their actions on the environmental bills we think matter most.

Brown’s paddling leaves the environment behind

Gov. Jerry Brown is often quoted saying that he likes to govern just as one would paddle a canoe: paddling to the right, and then to the left, to keep the craft on course.

This year, Brown paddled more to the right on the bills that counted the most to the environment. Of the seven bills on this year’s report card that made it to the governor’s desk, Brown acted in a way consistent with Sierra Club California’s position on just three of them. For 2013, he receives a score of 43%. That’s down from 73% last year, and 55% in 2011.

This year Brown aligned with the Club’s support for wildlife by signing AB 711 (Rendon), a bill banning lead bullets in hunting, and AB 1213 (Bloom), which adds new protections for bobcats. He also signed SB 43 (Wolk), a bill Sierra Club supported and that will increase access to solar energy.

To the right

However, on issues that involved challenging the oil industry and timber companies, Brown failed to come through for the environment. He vetoed a bill by environmental champion Sen. Mark Leno that would have laid the groundwork for limiting oil price manipulation. He also signed a bill addressing fracking regulation, but only after he participated in inserting into the bill amendments that could make it harder for fracking to be reviewed and regulated until 2015.

The governor’s gift to timber companies included signing AB 904 (Chesbro), the industry-driven revision of the lifetime-timber-harvest planning process. He also signed AB 744 (Dahle and Gordon) the bill allowing bigger trees to be harvested without harvest plans under the guise of fire prevention. That bill was pushed by some of timber’s giants, including Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest private timberlands owner in the state, best known for its aggressive clear-cutting practices.

To the left

The governor also signed and vetoed a number of other environmental bills that didn’t make it onto our report card. He signed clean-water bills that had broad support from environmental and environmental-justice groups. He also signed bills that will help improve access to electric-vehicle infrastructure.

In all, he signed 33 bills the Club supported and signed 16 we opposed. He also vetoed three we supported and vetoed two we opposed. Had we scored all of those bills, he would have received 65%.

Many environmentally positive bills that made it through the process this year provide incremental improvements. Others are of greater significance. They would make changes that would either do long-term damage or long-term improvement to the state’s environment and environmental policy.

In this report card, we focus on bills that are of greater significance. On that measure—when the actions really counted the most—the governor earned 43%. He shied away from overtly bucking some very powerful industry interests.

from Sierra Club California’s California legislative 2013 report card.

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