Fireworks are a rarity in the California Legislature’s annual abbreviated December rump session, which often features accolades for lame ducks and occasionally gives hints of what’s to come in the next year.
But as lawmakers arrive back in Sacramento, their brief sojourn in the Capitol will have more meaning than usual. That’s because a major test looms for the amity between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrats who boss the state Assembly and Senate, a peace that was central to enabling Schwarzenegger’s easy reelection.
The test will come in an ongoing tug-of-war over who will make the rules bringing reality to this year’s single key piece of new law, a measure known as AB 32 that’s been touted in Sacramento and in the national press as a vehicle for making California the leader in efforts to stem global warming. Now that Democrats have taken over Congress, California Sen. Barbara Boxer, new chair of the Senate’s chief environmental committee, says she’ll push a federal law patterned on California’s.
Many of Schwarzenegger’s nominal Republican allies opposed the state measure, claiming it will shut down businesses in California on the basis of what they call “junk science.” But the governor, who bargained hard over some parts of the law before it passed, used it to cement his stature as an environmentalist, traveling not just California but through much of America to trumpet its pioneering aspects.
Even as he did that, though, he was issuing an executive order giving one of his appointees, the secretary of the state Environmental Protection Agency, the duty of overseeing the way the law is enforced. He also single-handedly made a deal with eight Eastern states that will allow California businesses to trade “pollution credits” with others situated thousands of miles away.
Companies gain such credits when they cut emissions beyond what the rules require. Other outfits having trouble meeting government standards can then buy the difference between actual cuts and what the firms reducing emissions were required to cut. A market in similar “smog credits” already exists in some parts of California.
Democrats who helped Schwarzenegger make the global warming issue his own reacted with annoyance but not anger to his moves. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of East Los Angeles, who carried the bill, and Senate President Don Perata of Oakland, who joined Schwarznegger when he signed it, both noted accurately that his executive order contradicts what the bill says and runs counter to the agreement that led to its passage.
But from the start, Schwarzenegger wanted full control over all rulemaking related to tactics used against global warming. He sought to have the rules made by several of his cabinet officers. Democrats refused, insisting that the authority go to the state Air Resources Board, nationally renowned for pioneering anti-smog efforts that led to things liked catalytic converters, hybrid gas/electric vehicles and “clean” diesel fuel.
Eventually, Schwarzenegger bowed to the Democrats, getting in return an “escape clause” allowing him and future governors to declare emergencies on unspecified grounds and suspend any rules made under the new law.
His executive order was clearly a violation of both his agreement and the law. “You can’t rewrite a law through executive order. This is totally inconsistent with the intent of the law and with the way that it is written,” griped Nunez, perhaps feeling slightly snookered by Schwarzenegger, whom he has described as a “good friend.” Perata was equally piqued, saying, “I agree wholeheartedly with Speaker Nunez.”
Neither Nunez nor Perata indicated how they would try to countermand Schwarzenegger’s order. They probably can’t do much until they consider next year’s state budget.
Similarly, it’s unclear whether they can prevent Schwarzenegger’s pollution-market agreement, even though some of their urban constituents are unhappy with it. The market system, some believe, allows companies in low-rent districts to continue spewing gases and other pollutants so long as they pay for the privilege, with nearby residents forced to continue breathing foul air even as overall statewide air quality improves.
But a market system for the greenhouse gases that produce global warming makes some sense, possibly much more than trading smog credits. For this problem is global, with carbon-based gases that warm the atmosphere causing almost equal worldwide difficulty no matter where they are produced. So cutting more gases in New York benefits California, even if companies here continue to spew, but pay for the right to do so.
While campaigning, Schwarzenegger said his moves are designed not to countermand the law he signed, but to make it effective sooner than required.
Will Democrats be convinced? If not, what will they do about it? These open questions could make December in the Legislature far more interesting than usual.