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California's voter guide offers a reality check on Prop. 70: Most Democrats are against it

California's voter guide offers a reality check on Prop. 70: Most Democrats are against it
Gov. Jerry Brown, flanked by Republican legislators Chad Mayes, left, Tom Berryhill, second from right, and Devon Mathis, right, on July 17, after the Legislature approved an extension of cap and trade. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

We may never know the exact terms of a bipartisan deal in Sacramento that resulted in a ballot measure to govern future climate change spending in California.

What we do know is that many prominent Democrats had no intention of actually encouraging anyone to vote for it. In fact, it seems the only prominent Democrat embracing the deal is Gov. Jerry Brown.

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The ballot measure was drafted during negotiations last summer to extend the life of the state's cap-and-trade climate program. There were months of dramatic twists and turns leading to passage of the landmark bill, with Brown and Democratic leaders relying on the votes of eight Republican lawmakers.

That GOP support required Democrats to sweeten the pot. And so they put on the June statewide ballot Proposition 70, a short constitutional amendment to require a supermajority legislative vote in 2024 on future spending of cap-and-trade revenues. The cash comes from companies that emit greenhouse gases above the "cap" imposed by the state Air Resources Board.

Close to $5 billion has been collected since the inception of cap and trade. Existing rules require the money be spent on things that would reduce greenhouse gases. But there's been considerable disagreement over what programs should qualify, none more controversial than the Brown administration's decision to spend part of the cash on a subsidy for the governor's favorite project, high-speed rail. By the end of 2016, about $800 million went toward construction costs of the train system.

It's widely believed that voter approval of Proposition 70 would give Republicans a seat at the table when future cap-and-trade revenue spending plans are crafted and, therefore, a way for them to kill the subsidy for the struggling bullet train project.

That makes it all the more interesting that Brown, the train project's most passionate and important supporter, would embrace something that could be used to wound it. Yet, the governor has signed the official argument in support of Proposition 70 appearing in the guide to be sent to voters this spring -- a decision his office declined to explain last week.

"Proposition 70 safeguards California's historic climate change program," Brown wrote in a passage also signed by the president of the California Chamber of Commerce and the GOP lawmaker who helped strike the deal. Fact check: That's misleading. The climate change law will stay on the books even if this side deal is rejected by voters.

To challenge the need for the ballot measure, his fellow Democrats have brought out the big guns, like billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer who argues it "would let a small group of politicians who have opposed our successful clean air strategies derail progress on climate change and pollution reduction." Fact check: Given the challenges of getting a supermajority consensus, delayed action on spending the money is a real possibility.

Environmental groups and some Democratic legislators also have signed the voter guide's opposition statements. And the state party is officially opposed to Proposition 70.

The official ballot title, written by the office of state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, doesn't make it sound very appealing: "Limits Legislature's Authority To Use Cap-and-Trade Revenue To Reduce Pollution." Fact check: Not necessarily, as long as two-thirds of each legislative house agrees on a spending plan.

In truth, everyone involved in Proposition 70 was crafting a proposal as much about raw politics as public policy. Republicans won the first round — actually getting it on the ballot. Democrats, except for Brown, seem to be lining up to make sure that's as far as it gets.

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