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Why Are Democratic Lawmakers Failing to Pass Environmental Bills?

| September 16, 2013
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 Protesters staging an anti-fracking demonstration in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Protesters staging an anti-fracking demonstration in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Environmental measures seem to be struggling in Sacramento, despite Democrats holding sizable majorities in both houses. This legislative session California lawmakers killed a bill that would have given the California Coastal Commission stronger enforcement powers, including the power to levy fines. They also failed to send Gov. Jerry Brown a measure that would have banned single-use plastic bags at grocery stores.

KQED’s Mina Kim spoke with Paul Rogers, environment reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and managing editor of KQED’s Science Unit.

Surprising bills that failed this year

Coastal Commission: A bill from Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) would have given the Coastal Commission the ability to issue fines to people who break its laws, such as building an illegal structure or posting a No Trespassing sign. Twenty state agencies already hold that power, but right now the Coastal Commission has to take people to court. That can take years and be very expensive, so the commission often doesn’t take that route.

Oil: There was also a failed attempt to increase the fee that oil companies pay when they bring oil into the state, to help pay for oil spill cleanups.

Plastic bags: The Legislature failed to pass a measure that would have banned single-use plastic bags at grocery stores.

Why are environmental groups having a hard time swaying a Legislature dominated by Democrats?

The last time the Legislature passed a landmark environmental bill was in 2006. That was the global warming bill that set up the cap and trade system in California.

There are a couple of reasons why environmentalists are struggling to get traction. One theory, according to Rogers, is that Brown has given the word to Democrats that the state is still in recovery and they’re still getting state finances under control. Another theory is that there are fewer journalists in Sacramento to keep an eye on legislators.

Rogers also said environmental groups need to reach out to a broader audience, especially Spanish speakers.

“What’s fascinating to me is that when you poll Latino residents of California, they actually support tough environmental protections more than any other ethnic group. And for whatever reason, some of it is Latino leaders in the Legislature, some of it is environmental leaders, they’re not really working together very well to build majorities,” Rogers said.

Why did some environmental bills succeed?

In recent years, a lot of the environmental bills that have earned the governor’s signature have been animal welfare bills: Two years ago the governor signed a ban on shark fin soup and this year’s lead ammunition ban was aimed at stopping California condors from being poisoned. Rogers said other groups could learn from the Humane Society and the techniques they’re using to gather support, such as rallying the public and using social media.

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Category: Science

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  • fdrouillard

    The California Coastal Commission no longer simply protects access to and the health of our coastal ecosystem. They now hurt Californians, particularly small developers that want to exercise their private property rights. And they do so without improving access or coastal health. As a result, that quasi-judicial agency cannot be trusted to balance “the social and economic needs of the people of the state” as required by the Coastal Act.