Politics & Government

Dan Walters: Moderate bloc bests governor

As the final fortnight of the 2015 legislative session began, Capitol handicappers were predicting a concluding cascade of landmark legislation.

The Legislature did take significant steps on medical marijuana regulation and the right of terminally ill patients to end their lives.

However, as the biggest measures stalled one-by-one, the session ended early Saturday with a whimper, not a bang.

The most evident casualties were ambitious new standards for reducing carbon dioxide emissions that Gov. Jerry Brown hoped would make a global splash – blocked by a stubborn band of moderate Democrats in the Assembly.

Meanwhile, Republicans’ equally stubborn opposition to tax increases stalled several other issues, including new levies for transportation and health care that Brown sought.

Brown was furious that he had to remove the core feature of Senate Bill 350, reducing petroleum in automobile and truck fuel by 50 percent by 2030, to salvage other, relatively mild carbon reduction goals.

During an unusually lengthy news conference with legislative leaders, Brown excoriated the oil industry for its multi-million-dollar campaign to block the fuel cuts.

“I’d say oil has won a skirmish, but they’ve lost the bigger battle, because I am more determined than ever to make our regulatory regime work for the people of California,” Brown vowed, adding, “We’re going forward. The only thing different is my zeal has been intensified to a maximum degree.”

The industry’s campaign clearly had an impact, but vilifying it is also a rationalization that ignores carbon reduction’s more nuanced politics.

One aspect is the moderate Democratic bloc which emerged from independent redistricting, the top-two primary system, adroit maneuvering by business groups and the state’s east-west political divide.

Many, if not most, of the bloc’s dozen-plus members represent relatively low-income inland districts whose residents live paycheck-to-paycheck, depend on cars for transportation and are leery about costs of “decarbonization” that affluent environmentalists such as billionaire Tom Steyer espouse.

That very human concern was magnified by failure of the bill’s backers to spell out how petroleum use would be cut by half – a lapse that the oil industry certainly exploited – and the state Air Resource Board’s history of high-handed decrees.

Lame-duck Speaker Toni Atkins could not crack the moderate bloc, essentially ceding control to its leaders, such as Fresno’s Henry Perea.

Having hung together on SB 350, the bloc holds the balance of power and its influence was felt on other bills that died in the Assembly, some without votes, after clearing the more liberal Senate.

They included several measures that business groups had targeted and a bill to reform asset seizure that law enforcement groups opposed.

Brown’s angry retreat on carbon bills and his inability, at least so far, to persuade Republicans to raise taxes stained his otherwise remarkable string of legislative victories since returning to the governorship more than four years ago.

Brown may be tempted to retaliate against the moderate bloc by vetoing members’ bills, but that would likely backfire as the governor seeks other measures to polish up his political legacy during the remaining years of his two-part governorship.