California Climate Measure Fails After ‘Green’ Governor Opposed It in a Campaign Supporters Called ‘Misleading’

The only statewide climate measure on California’s ballot Tuesday failed, even though it would have raised billions to help meet the state’s ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets by subsidizing electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, among other things. Its downfall resulted largely from the high-profile opposition of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has arguably worked harder than any other governor to position himself as a climate leader.

Official ballot materials said Proposition 30 would provide funding for programs to reduce air pollution and prevent wildfires by increasing tax on personal income over $2 million. The roughly 35,000 Californians who make more than $2 million would have been required to pay an additional 1.75 percent on income above that amount.

The tax on these high-income earners—0.08 percent of Californians—would raise about $3.5 billion to $5 billion annually, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

A statewide poll conducted in September by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, found that 55 percent of likely voters would vote yes on Prop 30, 40 percent would vote no and 5 percent weren’t sure. 

Then ads featuring Newsom calling Prop 30 a “trojan horse” started hitting TV and computer screens. “Fellow Californians, I need to warn you about Proposition 30, one company’s cynical scheme to grab a huge taxpayer-funded subsidy,” Newsom said in one TV spot. The words “Warning” and “Don’t Be Fooled”appeared in big letters behind the governor. 

“Prop 30 is being advertised as a climate initiative but in reality it was devised by a single corporation to funnel state income taxes to benefit their company,” he said.

The “single corporation,” excerpted text behind Newsom made clear, is Lyft, the measure’s top funder. Ride-sharing companies like Lyft must electrify 90 percent of the miles driven by their fleets by 2030, as part of the state’s climate targets.

Newsom’s campaign against Prop 30 worked. A month after his ad blitz, support for the measure dropped to 41 percent, with 52 percent opposed and 7 percent undecided, a statewide PPIC poll found just one month after finding majority support.

The main thing that happened to boost the no side between the two polls was a governor with favorable approval ratings coming out against the proposition, said PPIC president and CEO Mark Baldassare. And most of what the no side had to say came from the governor saying, “I’m against this, we’ve already taken care of this, don’t be fooled.”

Once people hear things like “Don’t be fooled,” even for things they support, it’s relatively easy for them to vote no, Baldassare said. 

It doesn’t matter if they’re in favor of electric vehicle funding and taxing millionaires, he added. “If there’s any sense that there’s either confusion or uncertainty on the voters’ part for initiatives, it’s really easy for people to say no. That’s why historically only about a third of initiatives pass.”

Eighty percent of Democrats were supporting Prop 30 in the first PPIC poll before the governor came out against it, Baldassare said. “I think that just raised doubts for enough people, and gave them reason to pause and think, ‘Why do I want to support this?’”

Leading the Opposition

Newsom tops the list of opposition funders, with his ballot committee and campaign donating more than $1.8 million to defeat the measure, according to state campaign finance filings.

Lyft donated the lion’s share of the $50 million supporting the proposition, along with members of a clean air coalition led by California Environmental Voters with support from the state Democratic Party. 

Despite the opposition’s rhetoric, nothing in the language of the proposition steers money toward Lyft, said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, which backed Prop 30. “That is a hoax that was perpetrated by the opposition. There was nothing in there to favor a special interest.”

Someone who drives for Lyft right now is eligible for a rebate to buy an EV like anyone else, said Magavern. “The measure would not have changed that.”

Plus, the money for vehicle rebates would have gone to the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, which regulates greenhouse gases, and the agency would then have discretion over how to spend it, Magavern said.

What’s more, supporters say, it wasn’t Lyft but environmental groups that came up with the idea for the proposition, which they did long before the ride-hailing company got involved. 

Several environmental groups began serious discussions a few years ago about putting a measure on the ballot, Magavern said, “to really do the job of cleaning up transportation in California.”

Transportation accounts for about half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, almost 80 percent of toxic nitrogen oxide pollution and 90 percent of particulate pollution from diesel engines, according to the state energy commission. Nitrogen oxide and particulate matter cause serious health problems by damaging the lungs and heart.

Prop 30 guaranteed at least half of the vehicle and infrastructure funding would go to disadvantaged and low-income Californians, said Magavern. A “huge reason” for the coalition’s support, he said, was to help those who are most harmed by air pollution and climate change and “are usually last in line for the clean mobility they need.”

“We’ve been looking for a long time for a steady, reliable source of funding for incentives to replace our dirty old engines and trucks and buses and cars with zero emission engines,” Magavern said. “And Prop 30 offered the opportunity to do that, and really to go a long way towards ending air pollution in California.”

The Santa Rosa-based nonprofit Climate Center was among those discussing the potential of a ballot measure in 2020. Lyft wasn’t involved until after CARB enacted the zero-emission vehicle rule for ride-hailing services, said Woody Hastings, the center’s energy program manager.

Hastings said he was disappointed to see a popular governor engage in a campaign “that was misleading at best.”

Beyond implying that the proposition would funnel money to Lyft, opposition materials indicated that there would be a tax impact for a broad swath of people. “That also was not true,” he said, and sowed confusion and uncertainty.

It’s true that Lyft would benefit indirectly from funding that helps drivers in their fleets transition to electric vehicles, said Ryan Schleeter, The Climate Center’s communications director. “But more electric cars on the road for ride-sharing services is also good for the rest of us.”

A major focus for The Climate Center has been to find ways to generate funding for programs that meet both air quality and climate goals equitably, he said. “California has a good track record on deploying climate solutions and clean energy and innovating. But we don’t have a very good track record of doing so equitably.”

Some have speculated that the reason Newsom opposed the measure had more to do with his plans to run for higher office and the fact that wealthy donors opposed it.

When asked about supporters’ claims that the governor misrepresented what the proposition would do, his staff did not address specific questions but instead shared information about Newsom’s programs to transition to zero-emission vehicles, or ZEVs. 

“The Governor has spearheaded a $10 billion ZEV package to make these vehicles more affordable and accessible than ever before, providing the most robust financial assistance programs in the nation,” said Alex Stack, Newsom’s deputy communications director. 

Toward a Clean Energy Future

One of the groups joining Newsom in opposing Prop 30 was the California Teachers Association. They argued that the measure “puts a special interest lock box” on the new revenues from taxing high-income earners. Such taxes are normally the largest source of funding for California’s K-12 schools and community colleges, CTA president Toby Boyd argued in opposing Prop 30. 

Boyd did not respond to a question for comment. But observers say it’s unclear how the measure would have affected revenues allocated to other programs. 

PPIC’s Baldassare worries about what message Prop 30’s failure sends to voters. The governor is saying “I’ve got this,” yet California is far from its goal of transitioning to zero-emission vehicles. Barely 18 percent of new cars sold are zero-emitting vehicles in California, less than 5 percent in the nation.

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Yet the rejection of Prop 30 has left voters confused about what the priorities should be.

Climate change policy is something Democratic and labor constituencies have very strong feelings about, he said. “So when you have a no vote like this, what does it say about the path forward when there’s divided loyalties around an issue as important as electric vehicles?”

“It’s absolutely untrue for the governor to say, ‘We got this,’” said Hastings, when it will require dramatic changes to avoid severe impacts from a changing climate.

The Climate Center’s approach to the climate crisis is to adhere to the latest science, Hastings said, and that means reducing greenhouse gases by more than 40 percent by 2030. He applauded the governor for allocating budget resources to the problem but added, “it’s definitely not enough.”

California will soon be the world’s fourth largest economy, with a massive amount of heavy-duty and long-haul traffic to import and export goods, Hastings said. “We need all hands on deck with full funding.”

And that means more funding for clean emission vehicles, with transportation accounting for roughly half the greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Prop 30 would have provided a significant funding mechanism toward that effort, Hastings said. 

The failure of Prop 30 condemns Californians to continue to have “by far the worst air pollution in the entire country,” Magavern of the Coalition for Clean Air said. “We’ve had summers of horrendous wildfires, and smog and particle pollution, and Prop 30 was a chance to take us to a clean air future.”

Instead, Magavern said, “we’re going to continue to be plagued by smoke and soot and smog in our air, which means thousands of people will die unnecessarily every year in California from air pollution. We could have stopped that.”

Undaunted, Hastings vows to keep fighting for a clean energy economy to ensure a livable, sustainable planet.

“We’re not giving up,” he said. “We want to come back with either another ballot initiative or another push for additional budget allocations to keep the ball rolling.”

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