Critics line up against formula for doling out California ‘disadvantaged community’ money

The Sacramento Bee

As lawmakers rushed to finish their business for the year last month, some of the most significant bills dealt with the state’s climate-change goals and cutting emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The closed-door negotiations and floor debates also underscored the Legislature’s intent that California’s “disadvantaged communities” are part of the climate-change agenda – and in line for a share of cap-and-trade revenue that flows into the greenhouse gas reduction fund from companies’ purchase of pollution allowances.

Yet exactly how to identify California’s most vulnerable areas remains a subject of disagreement, four years after a 2012 bill for the first time directed that some cap-and-trade money pay for projects in those places or somehow benefit them. During the 2015-16 session, the Legislature considered more than 50 bills involving that law.

Big money is at stake. The California Air Resources Board reported in December that greenhouse gas fund projects benefiting disadvantaged communities totaled $472 million as of December 2015.

The 2012 law put the California Environmental Protection Agency in charge of coming up with a way to define those areas. Last week, the state released the latest version of its CalEnviroScreen database that assigns scores to the state’s more than 8,000 census tracts based on 20 indicators, most of them measuring a tract’s pollution burden and the rest measuring a tract’s socio-economic characteristics.

The 3.0 draft adds two indicators: a tract’s rent burden – how much money people have left over after paying rent – and the cardiovascular health of its population.

In addition, it drops a 2.0 indicator that looked at how many people in a tract were children or elderly. It also reflects more data about pollution along the Mexico-California border.

“We have more recent data and we’ve improved the methodology,” said Sam Delson, a spokesman for the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

But some groups, particularly in the Bay Area, have complained that the CalEnviroScreen methodology favors Southern California and the Central Valley, which have more pollution sources.

From our archive: Former Bee environmental reporter Mark Grossi chronicled the plight of West Fresno, California’s riskiest place to live. Read his report now.

“Unless AB 1550 is amended to broaden the definition of (disadvantaged communities) to include communities with concentrations of people living with poor socio-economic conditions – regardless of their exposure to environmental hazards – we urge a ‘no’ vote on the bill,” the Association of Bay Area Governments wrote last month in opposition to Assembly Bill 1550, by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles. The bill would specify that 25 percent of the money be spent on projects in disadvantaged communities.

That bill passed the Legislature, with all Bay Area Democrats in favor, and arrived on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk this week.

The Sacramento Bee’s Data Tracker offers a deeper look at the numbers behind today’s news. Jim Miller: 916-326-5521, @jimmiller2