Top members of Gov. Jerry Brown’s staff hosted more than a dozen Assembly members recently to take their temperatures on hotly contested environmental legislation.
Instead, the meeting became a gripe session about the California Air Resources Board, the powerful government regulator that would implement proposed rules for slashing the use of gasoline on state roads.
“There was some anger,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), one of the participants. He said the administration response was, “Get back in line, you naughty kids.”
The tension reflected the degree to which concerns about the board, a favorite among environmentalists and a boogeyman for industry opponents, have threatened to scuttle legislation to advance California’s pathbreaking policies on climate change.
The debate turns on questions of how the state can meet its environmental goals with the right balance between the executive branch, which prizes the ability to act independently, and state lawmakers, who want their own stamp on government programs.
With the regular legislative session set to end Friday, state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) has added more board oversight to a measure she is carrying that would set new targets for greenhouse gas emissions.
Similar steps are being considered by Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who has legislation setting three goals for the next 15 years: generating half of the state’s electricity from renewable sources, doubling energy efficiency in existing buildings and cutting in half the amount of petroleum used for transportation in California.
Both bills have passed the Senate but are facing resistance in the Assembly, where lawmakers are debating how much leeway the Air Resources Board should be allowed in pursuit of environmental targets.
Oil companies that oppose the legislation say regulators may resort to gas rationing or penalties for those who drive more than others —accusations that board officials deny. They say the goal could be met by ramping up existing programs supporting initiatives such as electric vehicles, mass transit and fuels that contain less carbon.
Mary Nichols, the board’s chairwoman, said she knows lawmakers, many of whom will be serving longer in the Capitol because of term limits changes that voters approved a few years ago, want to play a larger role in how regulators do their job.
“We have a new generation of legislators who are not just going to sign a blank check,” she said.
Nichols is a longtime ally of Brown — she served in his first administration in the 1970s — and the governor’s office is wary of attempts to constrict the board’s powers.
“There’s a wide gulf between ensuring appropriate legislative oversight — which the administration is, of course, willing to discuss — and erecting real barriers that prevent the hard work necessary to fight climate change,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor.
The board, created in 1967 under Gov. Ronald Reagan, has a record of pace-setting environmental action, including the imposition of stringent standards on fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions.
Supporters view the board as a champion for green policies and don’t want to see it constrained by political considerations.
“Why make it harder to do the mission the public wants to see done?” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “And what the public wants is clean air.”
Some Assembly members want to force the air board to seek legislative approval before implementing new regulations. De León has ruled that out, obtaining a memo from the Legislature’s lawyer saying that any “legislative veto … would be unconstitutional” and violate the separation of powers.
De León said he sympathizes with concerns about oversight, saying he’s had his own “battle royale” with the air board over how money is spent on anti-pollution programs.
But he described questions about the regulators’ power as “an incredible narrative that’s been perpetuated by Big Oil” to derail the legislation.
Gatto disagreed, noting that he’s never taken campaign money from the oil industry but remains skeptical about the measure.
He said legislative attempts to rein in the board can be difficult, noting that the agency successfully opposed his proposal to tweak an ethanol program to guard against certain negative effects.
“That’s tremendous arrogance,” Gatto said. “I think every member [of the Legislature] has had an experience like this.”
Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) said lawmakers are ready to reassert their authority in a Capitol that has been dominated by Brown in recent years.
“I don’t want to give up any of my authority to an unelected bureaucracy,” Calderon said.
The 12-member board, which is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, includes experts in fields such as transportation and agriculture, as well as representatives from certain regions.
A spokesman for the board declined to comment.
The Air Resources Board is well-known for developing and running the cap-and-trade program that charges fees to polluters. There’s an ongoing legal battle over whether the board exceeded its authority in imposing those fees, and business interests are wary of new regulations.
Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, said the experience with cap and trade “gives us pause on what could be coming next on a whole host of new policies that would be needed to achieve the goals.”
With just days left for lawmakers to finish their work, environmental advocates are nervous about whether the Air Resources Board will emerge with enough authority to keep pushing the state toward lower gasoline use.
“Accountability is one thing,” said Steve Chadima of Advanced Energy Economy, an association of clean energy companies. “Micromanagement is another thing.”
Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.