Enviro issues raised in long-delayed state budget

For environmentalists, the long-awaited state budget may not have been much worth waiting for.

Two provisions in the final package that were viewed as critical to regulating greenhouse-gas emissions were removed or altered in the budget during the final round of negotiations over the $145 billion spending plan. The sections were not part of the main budget bill; they were tucked way in the trailer bills that accompanied that document. The two changes were made to meet the demands of Republicans.

The first affects $24 billion worth of transportation and levee projects financed by voter-approved borrowing, roughly half of the projects that voters, Gov. Schwarzenegger and lawmakers demanded to improve the state’s aging infrastructure. The change orders a two-year delay in filing lawsuits against counties, cities and developers to force an array of carbon-emission rules, thus making it easier for the projects to get under way more speedily. The provision was inspired by a lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Jerry Brown against San Bernardino County to require that county to meet greenhouse gas-emission-rules when approving its General Plan. The suit, which had not been linked to the budget until Republicans raised it as a bargaining chip, was settled hours before the Senate approved the budget.

“It is unfortunate that the budget got stalled over this issue,” Brown said. “It ended up being a straw man. This was a specter conjured up in the Republican caucus in the dead of night. It was a Republican bogeyman that was created for their own purposes.

“I am not itching to bring lawsuits,” Brown added. Brown has submitted formal comments to a total of 13 cities, counties or developers “pointing out their obligations under [the California Environmental Quality Act].”

The second provision involves regulations governing carbon emissions from off-road diesel equipment, including the earth-movers, dump trucks, graders and other heavy-duty vehicles used by contractors in major construction projects. In the language, contractors would have to meet emission rules as a prerequisite for bidding on jobs financed by voter-approved bonds. The provision was added weeks ago by Senate Democrats seeking to put teeth into rules that were also then being considered by the Air Resources Board, the state’s air-quality regulator. The ARB adopted the diesel-emission rules, but set a 13-year phase-in plan, which environmentalists contended was too lengthy and construction industry interests said would cripple the industry economically over time. The Senate provision, in SB 97 by Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, would have required the rules to go into effect quickly, and required speedier use of emission-control equipment, including canisters and filters to trap greenhouse gases.

But as part of the negotiations, the provision was removed.

At a high-level strategy session shortly before the budget was approved, Senate Democrats agreed to propose the same language in a separate, majority-vote bill within the next two weeks. It is likely to pass, given that Democrats control simple majorities in both houses.

The contractors were not pleased.

“I knew there was discussion of this, but we think that this legislation on top of regulations will be to just limit even more severely the number of bidders who are going to be able to get on the construction projects. It will drive up the prices even more of the costs of the projects,” said Mike Lewis, of the Construction Air Quality Coalition.

John Dunlap, a Sacramento attorney familiar with the issue, noted that there was uncertainty over the effectiveness and usefulness of the canisters. “They need to be proven and not void engine warranties or require them to be turned off after hours.

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