The real story behind SB 350

Farm workers tending the fields in the Salinas Valley. (Photo: Rightdx, Shutterstock)

A recent opinion column in Capitol Weekly (Jan. 7, “Moderate Democrats: the slaves of Big Oil?” ) was not the real story of last year’s SB 350, an effort to reduce petroleum-based transportation fuels in California by 50 percent. Ironically, the real story of SB 350 is the first line of the author’s eighth paragraph: “The story of inequality in our state is not just one of economics…”

Yes, after 354 words of name calling and accusations the author finally hit the mark. But he failed to appreciate that today inequality in California is illustrative of regional inequalities as well as economic ones.

Simply put, the bill’s author, Senator Kevin de Leon, was forced to remove the fuels restriction language of SB 350 because working people in California drive cars to work everyday. Grocery stores depend on diesel trucks to keep the shelves stocked. Farmers need tractors in their fields.

Are the economic and regional divides in California growing so vast that those in affluent communities can no longer see the working class in the San Joaquin Valley, East LA, and the Inland Empire?

Certainly the wealthiest in California, often in Silicon Valley and Coastal California, can afford to drive Teslas and pay more for their groceries. But they blithely ignore that the small business owner and local farmer are, in fact, subsidizing their electric luxury cars when they buy their Ford F-150 pickup trucks.

Are the economic and regional divides in California growing so vast that those in affluent communities can no longer see the working class in the San Joaquin Valley, East LA, and the Inland Empire?

Yes, the oil industry opposed fuel restrictions. But so did the Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and numerous business, agricultural, building, and trucking organizations whose members provide jobs and the necessities of life to Latino workers and their families.

The unprecedented opposition by lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, reflected well-founded concerns about the impacts that this arbitrary slashing of fuels would have had on all Californians, especially those least able to afford it – low income communities and communities of color.

When asked about the impacts on disadvantaged communities, SB 350 supporters would simply say that there is a plan, and that in the future people should buy electric cars. It was the modern-day version of “Let them eat cake.” But sadly, all the ingredients to make that cake are dependent upon farm workers, manufacturers, truckers, grocery store clerks and small business owners. Furthermore, they all rely on gasoline and diesel fuel.

The fuels restriction provision of SB 350 also ignored the loss of tax revenue that supports our schools, public safety, and other services that would have been devastated if 50 percent of California’s fuel was taken away. In 2013, that amounted to $21 billion. Such a loss would have detrimental impacts to communities such as Stockton, San Bernardino, Vallejo and other cities already facing cutbacks to critical services and even bankruptcy.

But that’s precisely the problem with California’s regional inequalities. The well-meaning, aspirational policies of the few ignore the real-world consequences for the middle class. By crippling the energy industry, it is the already underserved in California who would suffer the soonest and the most.

According to a recent study by the non-profit, non-partisan Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, 48 percent of workers employed by the petroleum industry in California are non-white, and a third of its total workforce have high school educations or less. That’s critically important to our communities, as it is an industry that offers positions that may not require college diplomas but can provide employees the ability to earn a living wage with which they can support their families.

Rather than personal and partisan attacks designed to widen the political divide in California, we should be working to shrink that divide. Because when we’re separated, we’re unable to see one another. And as SB 350 made clear, it’s far too easy to ignore those in California working hard to provide a better quality of life for their families.

Fortunately, representatives in those communities – the Central Valley, Los Angeles, the East Bay, and the Inland Empire – stood up for their communities, and in doing so stood up for California’s working class.

Ed’s Note: Sylvester Aguilar is president of the San Joaquin County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

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