Big vote against Prop. 23 sends a statement about California’s commitment to environmental laws

With 93 percent of the vote counted this morning, the biggest landslide on the California ballot was the vote against a measure to suspend the state’s landmark global warming law.

On a day when Republicans won across the nation by calling for smaller government and even Californians voted against tax increases and made it harder for the Legislature to raise fees, voters here gave a huge endorsement to perhaps the most controversial environmental protection law ever enacted in the nation.

Proposition 23 would have suspended the law known as AB 32, which calls for California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The ballot measure would have put AB 32 on ice until the state’s unemployment rate, currently 12.4 percent, fell to 5.5 percent for four consecutive calendar quarters.

The proposition was trailing this morning by a margin of 61-39. The 4.2 million votes cast against it were about 400,000 more than Jerry Brown got for governor. The “No on 23” vote was also bigger than the vote against raising the car tax by $18 to finance state park improvements, bigger than the vote to repeal three business tax breaks awarded during the past two years, and bigger than the vote to require the Legislature to get a two-thirds majority to raise fees.

This result came in spite of, or maybe because of, the millions spent on behalf of Proposition 23 by two Texas-based oil companies. It almost seemed like the more they spent, the worst the proposal did in the polls. And there might have been a connection. Many Californians who were undecided on the issue probably concluded that if the Texas oil companies were for it, they were against it.

But whatever the motivation, the decisive defeat of Proposition 23 was quite a statement about California’s commitment to environmental protection.

AB 32, after all, is something of an abstract concept. While its provisions might have some local benefit, its goal is really to spur the nation, and then the world, to curb its use of fossil fuels that create the emissions believed to contribute to global warming.

California’s reductions alone won’t turn the tide against this worldwide phenomenon. And the measure will almost certainly have negative, short-term economic impacts on California as it makes it more expensive for companies to do business here. So at least in the near-term, the law is an act of environmental altruism. In a sense, California is taking a hit for the rest of the world.

To some, this no doubt seems crazy, especially in light of the current condition of the economy.

But there could be a some long-term benefits to California for going out on a limb.

The state is gearing up to position itself as the center of the new green economy, the hotbed of research, design and development of alternative energy ideas, energy conservation, recycling, electric vehicles, and every other environment-friendly concept you can imagine.

Skeptics say there really are not that many “green” jobs to be had. But all of these industries combined have the potential to be a cluster that feeds off and eventually rivals the Silicon Valley as a source of new jobs.

And while AB 32 won’t directly create many jobs, California’s leadership on environmental issues, already recognized worldwide and now reaffirmed resoundingly with the defeat of Proposition 23, sends a message that the state relishes its role and is willing to take risks to maintain its place on the forefront of environmental protection.

California might have a bit higher tax burden than many new companies would like. But if we continue to invest in our universities, we will have a steady supply of professionals ready to do the kind of work these companies will need. A strong labor force combined with the state’s natural beauty, its weather, its outdoor recreation and its enthusiastic support for environmental laws will make it a magnet for researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs from around the world.

Proposition 23 represented a retreat from that position. By defeating that measure, Californians rejected retreat and embraced the future, whatever it might bring.

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