Prop 30 Climate Crisis Battles California Government
Will the fight against climate change finally force the replacement of California’s failing governance system?
This is the most interesting question posed by the most interesting measure in the November statewide ballot. Proposition 30 could be dismissed as just another attempt to raise taxes. But it actually represents the launch of a new political era. We are witnessing the beginning of an existential contest between the emergency of 21st the climate crisis of the century and the persistence of state dysfunctions 19e constitutional order of the century.
As such, Proposition 30 reveals the true nature of power in California and that the most important political divisions exist here within the progressive and environmental movements.
On one side of Proposition 30 and this division are the supporters of the measure, who one might call the destroyers – progressive Democrats willing to play rough with former allies and destroy the system of government to combat climate change. On the other side are the institutionalists – the progressives who have the most power in the current system, like the governor and the powerful public employee unions like the California Teachers Association. In opposing Prop 30, institutionalists are also aligning themselves with leading advocates of California’s Prop 13-based tax system, such as real estate interests and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
This contest – on Proposition 30 and many measures likely to follow – will decide whether the climate crisis can be solved under the current system, which embeds its complicated and inflexible formulas for taxes, budgeting and decision-making in a constitution too long. The alternative: Climate is forcing California to redo its constitution and create an entirely new system of governance.
Proposition 30 proposes to change state law to raise taxes for high-income earners — 1.75% on individual annual income over $2 million — for the next 20 years. According to the Office of the Nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, such a tax would generate between $3 billion and $4.5 billion in revenue each year. Proposition 30 would devote that money to a complex mix of programs dealing with two major sources of greenhouse gases: transportation and wildfires. Importantly, this includes providing additional subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles and for charging infrastructure.
All of this may sound simple and appealing to Californians who worry about climate change and don’t understand our state’s complex system of governance.
But in the context of this system, Prop 30 looks like more disease, not cure.
This is questionable as a fiscal policy, as it increases the dependency of the state on the highest earners, adding to the volatility and unpredictability of the system.
It is abominable as a budgetary policy. It uses inflexible formulas to lock billions of tax dollars into special, untouchable accounts for core government functions: schools, health care, prisons and emergency response. Indeed, Prop 30 makes it a crime to reallocate that money. It also limits funds for audits, thereby limiting oversight.
These provisions are noteworthy, because Prop 30 is also a bank robbery: in essence, the measure’s main funder, Lyft, is carrying out a raid on the national treasury as audacious as the casino robbery in Ocean 11. Under current state law requiring the switch to electric vehicles, ride-sharing companies like Lyft will likely have to spend a lot of their own money to help their drivers get electric vehicles. Prop 30 subsidies would mean taxpayers would cover more of Lyft’s costs in this transition.
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Prop 30’s many flaws seem likely to dampen his chances, especially with a host of opponents, including Governor Gavin Newsom, who appears in TV ads against him. But the audacious horror of the measure is equally compelling, making the case for prioritizing climate and signaling the shift to this new era.
Prop 30 demonstrates that California environmentalists no longer want to be liked or seen as allies of good government. Instead, our Greens, including Prop 30 Clean Air California supporters, California Environmental Voters, and leading environmentalist politicians like Fran Pavley, are unashamedly putting on the black hats. They are prepared to fight allies, destroy coalitions and choose Hobbesian fights against other progressive interests.
And if the climate threat is truly existential, they might just be right.
Prop 30 says those fighting climate change don’t need your love. They need money and action. They don’t have time for political talk about California’s global climate leadership – a claim that even the California Assembly Speaker admitted that was nonsense. And they can’t wait any longer for small measures, like the long-fought gas tax hike in recent years. Data and climate science indicate that 2030 will be too late.
With such a ruthless urgency behind it, Proposition 30, whether or not it wins a majority in November, is already a winner. On the defensive, Newsom rushed through a new package of climate legislation and investment at the end of this summer’s legislative session. Now he’s bragging about his $54 billion California Climate Pledge and engage more. “We’re not just doubling down, we’re just getting started,” he says.
Of course, the people behind Prop 30 may be just getting started. Win or lose in this vote, they seem likely to come back with even more aggressive measures, because that’s what they have in their toolbox, in the current era of California.
If there’s anything wrong with Prop 30, from a climate crisis perspective, it’s that it’s not urgent enough. It doesn’t take enough taxes on enough people to make all of this decade’s electric vehicles rather than future ones. It does not overhaul the budget enough to make the climate our real first priority.
So while Prop 30 supporters have already gone too far for the liking of the governor and the teachers’ union, they will soon learn that they must go much further. They’ll recognize that California’s 19e century system of government is simply too old and inflexible for the rapid social and economic transformation that the climate crisis demands.
What will they do then? Proposition 30 shows they have some nerve. But do they have enough nerve to tear up the state’s fiscal and budgetary systems? Or give us a new constitution?
Because Californians face a choice: save the climate or save our weird system of government. We cannot do both.
This article was originally published on Zocalo.