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California Proposes Wealth Tax for Clean Air Efforts

The ballot initiative would tax residents making more than $2 million a year and use the funds to help the state curb wildfire, smoke and other air pollution. But some say the measure is overkill, given the state’s ambitious climate plans.

(TNS) — How much fire season fouls up the air hasn't been lost on anyone living in California recently: the smoke, the orange sky, the smell of burning wood.

A ballot initiative that appears almost certain to go before voters in November takes aim at wildfire pollution, and more.

Dubbed the Clean Cars and Clean Air Act, the measure would tax California's wealthiest residents — those making more than $2 million a year — and channel the proceeds to helping the state curb wildfires, and smoke. The initiative also targets automobile exhaust by directing new tax revenue toward boosting the number of electric cars and trucks on the road.

Already California is investing heavily in fire management and zero-emissions vehicles. These investments not only improve air quality but reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A highly regarded United Nations climate report released Monday concludes that greenhouse gas emissions must drop 43 percent by 2030 to limit the planet's temperature rise to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at which scientists say the fallout of global warming may become unbearable.

Still, proponents of the measure say California needs to spend more money on clean air, especially as the temperatures continue to climb, which only exacerbates the amount of wildfire smoke and smog.

"We have a long way to go, and climate change is making it harder," said Will Barrett, a national senior director with the American Lung Association, which recently joined a coalition of influential health, environment and labor groups in backing the initiative. "We think this ballot measure can build off of what the governor and the Legislature are trying to do."

The state's current efforts may also be the reason some won't support the proposal to spend more money.

"Nobody is going to come out and say, 'I'm against clean air,'" said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which opposes the measure. "But the reality is that California is already in the lead in terms of its programs to deal with air pollution and climate change."

The initiative, which the organizers expect to qualify for the Nov. 8 election this month, would generate an estimated $3 billion to $4.5 billion annually for the cause through at least 2033, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office. The sunset date is based on progress limiting pollution.

The revenue is significant. It would add at least hundreds of millions of dollars to the few billion the state currently spends annually on wildfire management, and quadruple the state's historical half billion-dollar investment each year in zero-emission vehicle rebates and infrastructure. Gov. Gavin Newsom also has increased funding recently for clean car programs using state budget surpluses.

The additional tax proceeds, according to the proposed ballot language, would be split as follows: 45 percent for rebates and other incentives for purchasing electric vehicles, 35 percent for charging stations and other electric-vehicle infrastructure, and 20 percent for wildfire prevention and suppression for Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency. Low-income communities would be prioritized in how the revenue is spent.

The money would come from a 1.75 percent tax on the portion of personal income of an individual or married couple above $2 million. Organizers of the measure estimate that less than a quarter percent of taxpayers would face the new levy. Prior voter propositions in California have succeeded in using higher taxes on the rich to help fund mental health services and education.

Already the clean air campaign has collected the 623,212 signatures it needs to qualify the measure, organizers say. But the goal remains 1 million signatures, to have a cushion when some signatures are deemed ineligible, an inevitability in a major statewide campaign. The organizers have the cash it generally takes to reach that number, according to state campaign finance reports.

The biggest contributor, by far, is ride-hailing company Lyft, which has given more than $8 million to the campaign, records show.

Lyft is likely to benefit from the initiative by having a larger pool of drivers with zero-emissions cars. State law requires ride-hailing companies that operate in the state to log 90 percent of their vehicle miles in electric cars or trucks by 2030.

" Lyft is proud to partner with prominent environmental, public health, business and labor organizations, as well as other climate leaders, to fight wildfires and improve air quality in our home state," the company wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

The California State Association of Electrical Workers is also a supporter.

The Clean Cars and Clean Air Act is among a long list of proposals jockeying for the November ballot, which will ultimately contain about a dozen of the serious contenders, political experts project. Other environmental initiatives in the running include banning fracking and phasing out oil and gas extraction as well as boosting funds for the clean-up of contaminated lands and water. A measure that would reduce plastic pollution has already qualified.

The more initiatives on the ballot, experts say, the less chance any one stands of passing.

Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air and an author of the Clean Cars and Clean Air Act, says he thinks his measure will succeed because of the multiple benefits that clean skies provide: less unhealthy air and less heat-trapping gas emissions.

"This is a popular topic with voters," he said. "People are seeing in real life the effects of climate change. Californians for a long time have wanted to fight air pollution. I think these are compelling causes for people."

(c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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