The un-greening of California's budget?
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid to be known as America's greenest governor may take a hit this week if his new budget agreement, hammered out in secret with legislative leaders, weakens air pollution rules and guts mass-transit funding.
Environmentalists raised a ruckus Thursday as word leaked out that the budget "framework" to be voted on this weekend would delay requirements for construction companies to retrofit diesel equipment. "This budget will lead to more asthma, more heart disease and more premature deaths for Californians, and it will also mean higher healthcare costs," said Don Anair of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The off-road diesel regulations, adopted in 2007, were the first in the nation to require construction companies to retrofit existing bulldozers, scrapers and other heavy equipment. The state's Air Resources Board said that the soot-spewing equipment is responsible each year for an estimated 1,100 premature deaths and more than 1,000 hospitalizations for heart and lung disease, along with tens of thousands of asthma attacks.
According to Bill Magavern, the Sierra Club's Sacramento lobbyist, the budget compromise could mean a 17% reduction in pollution cuts by 2014.
The state's powerful building industry, now suffering in the recession, has mounted a strong lobbying effort against the regulations. "This rule will needlessly force builders to throw away billions of dollars' worth of equipment," Jim Ryan, executive vice president of the San Diego chapter of the Associated General Contractors, said in a recent statement.
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the contractors association in Washington, said a relaxation of the rule would be "welcome news for the thousands of construction workers that have lost their jobs across the state." The rule was "well intended," he said, but "would have forced thousands of small-business owners to replace perfectly good equipment instead of putting Californians back to work."
As for mass transit, the proposal reportedly suspends all state support for local transportation for the remainder of 2009 as well as next year, according to environmentalists. That would bring mass-transit funding cuts to $3 billion over the last two budgets.
However, several environmental measures sought by Republicans were reportedly excluded from the proposed budget framework, including a prohibition on the consideration of greenhouse gases in state environmental impact reviews, and a weakening of pesticide rules.
Whatever the outcome, many are hoping that, somehow, budget brinkmanship can be curbed. "Reform of the budget process -- especially the elimination of the two-thirds requirement for passing budgets and taxes -- is desperately needed to prevent this kind of fiscal blackmail," Magavern said.
-- Margot Roosevelt
Photo: Bulldozer frames a polluted downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times