Mixed results in 2010 elections

For some, knowing that California’s Proposition 23 was largely funded by two Texas oil companies (along with the Koch brothers) might have been enough of a reason to vote against it. Similarly, Proposition 26 got major funding from big oil and tobacco companies. But what does the recent defeat of Prop 23, and the passing of Prop 26, actually mean? And why was one defeated and the other similar one approved, by the same voters?

Prop 23 would have suspended AB32, signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2006, which requires California to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. AB32 is expected to have benefits in these areas — some of which we’ve experienced already:

  • Jobs and economic growth: Although the proponents of Prop 23 called it a “jobs initiative,” it would have probably led to a loss of jobs in California. Before Prop 23 was defeated, a group of 118 economists signed an open letter stating their belief that AB32 will stimulate California’s economy along with having many other beneficial effects. In fact, AB32 and similar policies have already attracted business to California and encouraged the creation of hundreds, maybe thousands, of clean-energy jobs. Because of such policies, California has the most vital clean energy economy in the United States. Venture capitalists are more likely to invest here with AB32 in place; according to State Senator Mark Leno, AB32 attracted $11 million in venture capital to the state even before being implemented. Companies like Sungevity have made California their home, rather than other solar-friendly places such as Germany, in part because of AB32, which creates a climate that encourages clean-tech business.
  • Environment and health: As the 118 economists put it in their letter, “policies that reduce global warming pollution are likely to provide immediate benefits to the health and welfare of residents by reducing local pollutants.” So all Californians will benefit from AB32, not just those employed in the clean-energy industry.
  • National security: Promoting clean energy in California, the 8th-largest economy in the world, reduces our dependence on foreign oil. Doing so greatly enhances our national security — which is a major factor that led George Shultz to become co-chair of the No on 23 campaign.

Perhaps you don’t live in California. Why should you care what happens here? Because California has a history of being a leader in innovation and clean energy, and what we do here will spread elsewhere. Supporters of Prop 23, almost all from other states, knew this when they backed the measure, and that’s why they targeted California. The Republicans’ nationwide gains at the polls this fall will make it harder to enact climate-protecting legislation at the federal level, so it’s all the more crucial for states to take the lead.

Proponents of Prop 23 were clever, though misleading, in calling it a “jobs initiative.” In an equally clever move, opponents rebranded it the “Dirty Energy” proposition. This is a wonderful example of how we can reframe a message to get people to think differently about an issue: no one likes the sound of “dirty energy.” The No on 23 campaign also bombarded the media and social networking sites with creative, forceful ads, some of which you can see here.

The same effort, unfortunately, didn’t go into defeating Prop 26, branded the “Stop Hidden Taxes” initiative, which many of us heard about as an afterthought long after we’d gotten the scoop on Prop 23. Prop 26, now approved by California voters, reclassifies some environmental fees as taxes requiring approval by a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature. And we all know how popular taxes are.

It’s not clear how the passing of Prop 26 will affect AB32, though some fear that it will make it harder to impose fees intended to implement AB32. There are reasons to hope that won’t be the case; Prop 26 applies only to laws enacted after January 1, and AB32 has been in place since 2006. It could still affect fees levied in the future to support AB32. And even if it doesn’t erode AB32, if allowed to stand Prop 26 will have serious consequences, as detailed in a study by the UCLA School of Law. In addition to adversely affecting transportation, law enforcement, and public health, Prop 26 is an attack on the environment. That’s because it makes it much harder to impose fees on polluters, now a major source of funding for health and environmental programs. And that leaves taxpayers to pay for the harmful effects of industries like oil companies.

But another challenge remains for Prop 26, and that’s it’s basic legitimacy. It’s likely the proposition could face challenges in court — both because it’s badly written, leaving interpretations up to the courts, and because it contradicts Prop 23, which had such a resounding defeat. Still, we’ll have to wait and see what happens with Prop 26.

Why did Prop 26 succeed while the similar Prop 23 failed? Anyone who’s faced a long California ballot knows how confusingly written most of the propositions are, so it’s likely that voters didn’t realize they were making contradictory votes. The best antidote to such confusion seems to be good advertising, but Prop 23 got the lion’s share of publicity while Prop 26 was left to prevail silently.

This shows the power of not only good publicity but also strong bipartisan collaboration. Perhaps what put the No on Prop 23 campaign over the edge, and enabled the clever strategies used, was the huge collaborative effort among progressives and conservatives, activists and energy companies, Republicans and Democrats.

While this fall’s election results were mixed, in both California and the rest of the country, there were some important wins. The election of Jerry Brown as governor will help promote environmental efforts — in fact, his opponent said she would have suspended AB32 for at least a year. And defeating Prop 23 was a major win for environmentalists, one that will have far-reaching effects that extend throughout our country and even beyond. In this election, California won the right to continue leading the world in clean-energy innovation. And considering how the election went at the federal level, we need states like ours to lead the way.

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