Wealth tax to fund clean air, wildfire programs qualifies for November ballot in California

Tax the rich. Purify the air. It’s not a bumper yet. But it could soon be.

A plan to raise income taxes for some of California’s wealthiest residents — individuals and couples earning more than $2 million a year — and use the money to pay for increased rebates on electric vehicles, more of electric charging stations, expanded wildfire-fighting resources and other clean air programs qualified for the national ballot in November.

The “Clean Cars and Clean Air Act”, if approved by a majority of voters this fall, it would generate between $3 billion and $4.5 billion a year, according to the state’s Office of the Legislative Analyst.

The measure was certified by Secretary of State Shirley Weber on Wednesday after confirming her supporters had delivered the signatures of more than 623,212 registered voters as required.

He’s backed by environmental groups and public health groups, who say California needs a more stable source of funding to get more electric vehicles on the road and provide more firefighters, engines, helicopters and programs to reduce the risk of fire as the threat grows. each summer.

“We’ve seen 50 years of California policies reduce air pollution,” said Will Barrett, national senior director of clean air policy at the American Lung Association, which supports the measure. “But this work is now becoming more difficult because of climate change. A major driver of this unhealthy air has been wildfires, which have increased in severity in recent years.

“And we know we can’t meet our clean air standards,” Barrett added, “without a widespread transition to zero-emission vehicles.”

The measure is contested by taxpayer groups. They say California has a budget surplus and should cut taxes, not raise them.

“We already have the highest income tax rate in America, the highest sales tax and the highest gas tax,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. . “People are quite unhappy with paying higher taxes. Proponents will say it only affects the super-rich. But you can’t go any further until you drive all those people to Incline Village, Nevada, Las Vegas, Houston, or Miami.

The measure will be one of the top environmental issues on the ballot of the past decade facing California voters.

But there are some political twists. So far, the yes campaign has raised $8.4 million. Of that amount, $8 million comes from Lyft, the ride-sharing company in San Francisco. Several Bay Area billionaire tech investors, Tom Steyer, Ron Conway and John Doerr, each contributed $50,000.

Last year, the California Air Resources Board passed a rule requiring Lyft, Uber and other ride-sharing companies to use zero-emission vehicles to travel at least 90% of their miles by 2030. But the board the air did not say whether the drivers, who are private contractors, or the companies, would pay the cost of all those electric cars and charging stations.

Coupal said the campaign opposing the measure plans to focus on that issue.

“It’s going to look like a corporate takeover,” he said. “You have a big company saying I want other people to pay for our charging infrastructure.”

If passed, the measure would raise state income taxes by 1.75% on income over $2 million for up to 20 years. California’s top tax rate is 13.3%, so it would increase to 15.05% for those affected by the proposal.

supporters say it only affects a tiny minority of the super-rich, and the beneficiaries will include everyone, thanks to cleaner air and better discounts for anyone buying an electric vehicle.

“This initiative will be good for all Californians,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, an environmental group with offices in Sacramento and Los Angeles.

“Of course it will be good for ride-sharing companies,” he said. “But that doesn’t do them any special favors.” It will fund existing programs to clean up transportation and fight forest fires.

CJ Macklin, a Lyft spokesperson, said a company representative was unavailable for an interview.

“We support the Clean Cars & Clean Air Act because we are committed to accelerating the transition to clean vehicles in order to reduce air pollution in California and curb climate change,” he said in a statement. communicated. “To meet our state’s bold climate goals, we need to do more to help people afford zero-emission vehicles and develop a more robust and convenient charging network.”

A prominent opponent is the California Teachers Association.

“While this measure provides funding for environmental concerns, as a policy, educators believe in maintaining the integrity of our school funding process,” said Lisa Gardiner, spokeswoman for the teachers’ union. “This measure creates a special fund that bypasses our state’s general fund and our school funding guarantee, Proposition 98.”

Other unions support the measure, including the State Association of Electrical Workers, Cal Fire Local 2881 and the California State Pipe Trades Council. It also has the support of San Francisco Mayor London Breed, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, as well as various nursing groups and environmental organizations. , such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists. .

If approved, the measure would require 45% of funding to go to the California Air Resources Board for electric vehicle incentives, such as rebates. Another 35% would go to the California Energy Commission to install more electric vehicle chargers in homes, apartments and public places. And 20% would go to Cal Fire and the state fire marshal’s office to hire more firefighters, buy more firefighting equipment and expand prescribed burns, forest thinning projects and other efforts to reduce the risk of forest fires.

The state auditor would be required to audit the program every two years, and in some categories, half of the funding would have to be spent in low-income areas, which often have the highest levels of air pollution.