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Tom Steyer plays it coy about spending money to boost climate bills

Tom Steyer plays it coy about spending money to boost climate bills
California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, left, and environmentalist Tom Steyer speak at an event Thursday marking the LEED Gold certification of the party's headquarters. (Melanie Mason/Los Angeles Times)

As the battle over the ambitious climate change proposals pending in the Legislature heats up, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has been notably coy about how much he intends to spend to boost the bills' prospects.

Steyer was the guest of honor at the California Democratic Party headquarters Thursday to fete the building's LEED Gold certification, a high standard of energy efficiency. 

Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, were sponsors of the green building, which he explained entailed giving "moola" to the building project.

But he was less forthcoming about how much he planned to pony up to back major climate change bills, particularly the ambitious measure by Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) that includes slashing gasoline use by 50% by 2030.

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Oil companies have ramped up their opposition to the bill by running ads against it on television, radio and the Web.

"This is the biggest industry on the face of the Earth. So if we're expected to match them dollar for dollar … this is truly a giant fight. This really is a David and Goliath story," Steyer said, when asked how he planned to counter the industry ads.

The former hedge fund manager, who has a $1.6-billion net worth according to Forbes, has spent lavishly for political causes in the past.

He put more than $30 million toward a 2012 ballot measure that closed a corporate tax loophole and dedicated money to energy-efficiency projects. In 2014, he spent $74 million to back candidates committed to tackling climate change, and yielded few wins.

Many expected Steyer to play a similarly generous role in boosting the climate bills. But he sidestepped repeated questions from reporters about how much he intends to spend to counter the fierce industry opposition.

"If we can afford to get our message out, our message wins," Steyer said. "The facts are going to be the facts and the facts are on our side."

Later, at a clean energy forum in Sacramento, Steyer kept alive the possibility of future spending on the climate bills.

"I haven't said we wouldn't [spend money]. But as far as I know, we haven't," he said.

According to lobbying filings, Steyer's organization, NextGen Climate Action, has spent some money--nearly $700,000 last quarter--on direct payments to lobbyists and "other" expenditures, which spokesman Gil Duran said included field outreach, paid media and direct mail.

The Western States Petroleum Assn., a trade group for oil companies, spent nearly $8.9 million on lobbying last year, the bulk of which went to "other" expenditures, according to CALMatters.

"We would hope Mr. Steyer would spend his money explaining to Californians how cutting the fuel supply 50% will reduce gas prices for consumers. The details matter," said Beth Miller, spokeswoman for the California Drivers Alliance, which is affiliated with the oil group.

When reporters asked Steyer on Thursday if time wasn't running out, he responded with a smile.

"We are getting toward the end, aren't we?"

Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Sacramento contributed to this report.

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

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