It’s easy for a layperson to get lost in AB 32– California’s aggressive, yet complex, anti-global-warming law that seeks to roll back greenhouse-gas levels in the state to what they were in 1990. When José Medina, a board member for the Environmental Health Coalition, tries to explain AB 32 to his community–he lives on the west side of National City, in a neighborhood bisected by Interstate 5–he puts it simply: “With the mandate calling for cleaner-burning engines, that’ll make less pollution from the 5 coming over to our neighborhoods.”
According to a recent poll, California’s Latino voters care more about the environment than white voters, largely because they’re more likely to live in neighborhoods where air pollution is a problem. That poll, conducted in July by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that Latinos–as well as other communities of color–favor stricter government regulation of air quali ty and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Even so, Latinos–and, to a lesser extent, Asians and African-Americans–are being courted by supporters of Prop. 23, the November ballot measure that seeks to suspend AB 32 until the state’s unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent and stays there for at least a year–something that’s happened only three times in the last 40 years, according to California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Prop. 23’s supporters call AB 32 a job killer, arguing that the law will disproportionately impact minority-owned small businesses–through increased energy costs–and low-skilled workers in industries targeted by AB 32’s clean-air mandates (like oil refining and trucking).
This tack could be working: According to a Field Poll conducted last month, while white voters overwhelmingly oppose Prop. 23, Latinos were almost split, with 42 percent supporting the measure, 45 percent opposing it and 16 percent undecided.
Bruce Mirken, a spokesperson for Communities United Against Prop. 23, a coalition of environmental-justice organizations from throughout the state, gets why the economic argument might resonate with Latino voters.
“When you’re in a state with an unemployment rate at 12.5 percent, and in some of these minority communities, unemployment’s running 3 or 4 points higher than that, it’s understandable that that’s an argument people are going to be interested in,” he said.
CityBeat reviewed numerous studies on Prop. 23 and AB 32 for this story. The law’s true economic impact is anything but clear. “Neither side really knows,” said Eric Bruvold, president of the National University System Institute for Policy Research.
Indeed, for each study arguing that AB 32 will result in increased energy costs for consumers and businesses, there’s another study arguing that savings will come from greater energy efficiency. In the jobs realm, while AB 32 has spurred growth in the state’s “clean tech” sector, its impact on jobs in the less-than-clean-energy sector is reflected in the donations to Yes on 23 that have poured in from oil and petrochemical companies.
The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council–an umbrella group for labor unions–was an early opponent of Prop. 23, but, Evan McLaughlin, the labor council’s political director, acknowledged that there are “real concerns about workers in certain industries that no one should take lightly.”
One argument that Prop. 23’s supporters haven’t broached with much success is the public-health benefit that comes with cleaner air. Prop. 23 spokesperson Anita Mangels, who didn’t respond to CityBeat’s phone calls by press time, told the liberal blog Think Progress that greenhouse-gas emissions “have no direct impact on the environment or health in California,” yet, the Legislative Analyst’s Office–in addition to a number of other studies–said that suspending AB 32 “could halt air quality improvements that would have public health benefits, such as reduced respiratory illnesses.”
Sonja Petek, a research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California, said PPIC’s research doesn’t indicate that, among Latino voters, economic concerns argument trump environmental-health concerns.
“What we were seeing is that communities of color are not necessarily pitting economic goals against environmental goals,” she said. “And, in fact, they see environmental goals as potentially helping the job situation as opposed to hurting it.
“The opponents of Prop. 23 have definitely brought up the environmental-justice angle while proponents are using the job-killing angle to advance their position, so I think it will come down to who does a better job of reaching these voters,” Petek said.
Like with any election, it comes down to money and how they each side touts its endorsements, Bruvold said. Mirken readily admits that Prop. 23’s opponents are “massively outspent”–as of Sept. 14, for instance, bigoil companies Valero and Tesoro have, combined, donated more than $5 million to support the measure.
Bruvold said the coalition that No on 23 has built, with its network of environmental-justice organizations up and down the state, some of which have spent decades helping low-income neighborhoods fight polluters–building “street cred,”as Bruovld put it–could beat out Yes on 23’s massive spending.
“It’s who do voters trust,” Bruvold said, “and who do they believe reflects their values?”