In California’s climate debate, state lawmakers push for more authority

Memorial Day rush hour commute begins in Los Angeles.
Memorial Day rush hour commute begins in Los Angeles.
(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

With negotiations over extending California’s landmark climate change programs struggling during the last month of the state’s legislative session, lawmakers are once again pushing for changes at the agency responsible for making the greenhouse gas reductions work.

The target is the California Air Resources Board, which regulates pollution under the climate change program and determines how billions of dollars generated by that effort gets spent.

Over the last two weeks, a bipartisan group of assembly members have pushed to audit the agency’s spending and held an oversight hearing to see if its greenhouse gas reduction programs are meeting emission targets. That’s on top of legislation aimed at increasing lawmakers’ authority over the agency and its spending formulas.

I don’t think there’s a more glaring example of [an agency] out of control.

— Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced)

The main bill, from Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), would create a formal legislative committee to vet climate policies and force greater transparency in the agency’s decision-making among other changes.


“The fundamental question here is, does the Legislature want to play a role in determining what the clean energy policies of California look like?” Garcia said. “Or do we want the executive office to continue driving the ship? And right now, that’s really where things are at.”

Garcia’s bill is tied to other legislation that would extend the state’s climate reduction targets past 2020 as well as the cap-and-trade program, which functions by capping how much greenhouse gas can be emitted into the atmosphere and requires companies to obtain permits to pollute.The new greenhouse gas goals wouldn’t go into effect unless Garcia’s bill passes too.

Garcia said he was open to adding more teeth to his legislation, and many of his colleagues in the Assembly are pushing for even more scrutiny.

Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) spearheaded the recent effort to audit the agency’s climate change spending, saying that the Air Resources Board doesn’t focus enough attention on California’s most polluted communities and that lawmakers needed to spend more time examining the state’s most important bureaucracies.

“I don’t think there’s a more glaring example of [an agency] out of control,” Gray said of the Air Resources Board.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), who signed on to Gray’s audit request, said many Assembly members have formed what he called a “coalition of the weary” — those who for years have wanted to gain greater say over how the climate change program works.

“There is no conflict at all in wanting to make sure that money is being spent right and making sure that we keep the eye on the prize, which is working to reduce pollution,” Gatto said.

After frustration bubbled up during another climate change debate last year, lawmakers passed a bill that gave them their first two appointees on the agency’s 14-member board, both of whom are supposed to represent disadvantaged communities.

Still, some environmental advocates believe that the Air Resources Board now has become a convenient target for some lawmakers looking for excuses not to vote to extend the climate programs. Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, noted that Gray’s request came too late to be considered by the Legislature’s audit committee this year, and after the Air Resources Board had provided lawmakers with significant information about its programs.

“It’s very legitimate for legislators to do oversight of ARB and other agencies,” Magavern said. “But some of what we’re seeing is more in the nature of political posturing and outright harassment of the agency.”

Gray is one of the business-aligned Democrats who are considered key to extending climate change targets, especially if Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders push for a bipartisan supermajority vote. He said his concerns have to be addressed before he would consider supporting such an extension.

“At the same time that we extend the program, we’ve got to implement these changes to make sure we’re doing cost-effective, efficient programs,” Gray said.

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Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.


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Updates from Sacramento