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It was on Nov. 21, 2008, in downtown Coachella when “an initial kickoff meeting and afternoon walking tour was conducted by the project team and city staff,” according to the Coachella Pueblo Viejo Plan’s (CPVP) “Vision” section.

Over the next seven months, community workshops were held; input was solicited from key city representatives; and the look of a future revitalized downtown area came into focus.

“Pueblo Viejo is the civic and cultural heart of Coachella,” said the CPVP plan final draft. “The community is proud of the historic charm, locally owned businesses, and vibrant civic center. As you enter through the attractive gateways on Sixth Street, you are immersed in a lively street scene offering shady walkways, cooling water fountains, outdoor dining and unique shopping. Once-empty lots are now filled with mixed‐use buildings that respect the heritage, climate and community values. Family‐friendly events and festivals fill the streets and public spaces. As you relax in the clean, well-maintained civic center core, you know … you have arrived in Pueblo Viejo!”

However, this is not the reality that greets you today if you visit those downtown blocks; more than 10 years later, the plan has yet to bear fruit. However, further revitalization may be finally coming to downtown Coachella: The city recently announced it was getting a nearly $15 million boost to fund affordable housing and a transportation center, in the form of a grant from the state via the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program (AHSC).

“We are happy to be the recipients of a $15 million grant that we worked very hard to get for the past three years,” said Jacob Alvarez, Coachella’s assistant to the city manager, during a recent phone interview. “This is an area (of California) that hasn’t been supported before—and that includes pretty much the whole Coachella Valley, Blythe and Imperial Valley, for that matter. So this is our first award, and we’re pretty excited about it.”

Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez touted the grant in the press release.

“This is another great project to enhance the Pueblo Viejo neighborhood downtown,” Hernandez said, according to the release. “The convenient location offers easy access to jobs and services at the new Department of Public Social Services building and sits next to the recently acquired Etherea sculpture. Plus, it is a short walk to the new library, expanding senior center, and shops and restaurants.”

The grant is slated to fund 105 net-zero-energy affordable housing units and a SunLine/vanpool hub with shade trees and public restrooms. The project will also bring 2 new miles of bikeways and 3,000 feet of new sidewalks.

While the funding is for another project and not the Coachella Pueblo Viejo Plan, the $14,895,407 gives the city the keystone redevelopment funding it has needed for more than a decade.

“Probably a good six to eight months ago, we received an urban greening grant to plant 188 trees, create connecting sidewalks and build an urban hiking path,” Alvarez said. “We see all of this as a nice addition to our overall vision, and we’re in the process right now of having these features designed as well.”

These are all stems in creating a centralized community and business hub in the eastern valley city that was incorporated in 1946.

“The AHSC is a grant program through the Strategic Growth Council of the state,” said Alvarez said. “They’re advocating for you to build in a way that reduces vehicle miles traveled, because that will help reduce greenhouse gases and other air pollutants by keeping some vehicles off the road. This is provided to us from the cap-and-trade payments made by corporations to the state.”

The city is calling the newly funded project the Downtown Coachella Net Zero Housing and Transportation Collaboration, with partners including the SunLine Transit Agency, the Inland Regional Center, CalVans and the Chelsea Investment Corporation. When asked if the other partners were contributing funds to the effort, Alvarez said they were not.

“In fact, I believe (SunLine) will be receiving some of the (grant) funds to buy additional hydrogen buses,” Alvarez said. “And then there is CalVans as well; that will receive roughly 40 vans for people to use in carpooling. They will pick up at the transportation hub where people can park their cars and travel together to common destinations (around the valley).”

How soon will the transformation become apparent to the city residents? Alvarez said the project could be completed in less than two years.

“We’re in the design phase, and that is running from now through January or February 2020,” Alvarez said. “We (soon) expect to get the conceptual drawings from Chelsea Investment Corp., the developer. We anticipate that there may be shovels in the ground by July 2020, if everything goes smoothly. The grant expires, I believe, on June 30, 2021, which is the end of the fiscal year for both us and the state. So we have about a year to complete the work (after groundbreaking).”

Published in Local Issues

Inside the California Assembly chamber on the night of June 1, the presiding officer urged lawmakers to recognize former members in their midst, “the honorable Henry Perea and Felipe Fuentes.”

In a familiar Capitol ritual, the former assemblymen waved from the balcony as applause rang out from their one-time colleagues.

But the two weren’t just retired lawmakers—they were now lobbyists being paid by oil companies to kill a bill that would soon meet its fate on the Assembly floor below.

That bill, by Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, would have forced industry to reduce air pollution that comes from their plants. Garcia knew the lobbyists in the balcony were pals of many of her Assembly colleagues. She knew oil and other industries were working hard to defeat her. And she knew her bill was in danger.

A million people in her industrial Los Angeles neighborhood “have been treated like a wasteland,” Garcia said in frustration, wiping tears from her eyes. Then she cast a glance toward the balcony. “Clean air is a big deal for a lot of Californians. You have a choice: Do we all matter?”

Her bill fell six votes short, as moderate Democrats joined Republicans to quash it. The moment marked a win for oil—and revolving-door politics.

Today, Garcia cites the lobbyists’ special relationships with current legislators as among the factors to blame for her bill’s demise.

“When you have a former member on the floor at the same time they are working for or against the bill,” she said, “you open the opportunity to have access in a way lobbyists normally would not have.”

Sacramento is full of termed-out or retired lawmakers who make second careers as lobbyists, strolling through a “revolving door” between government and the private sector. Current law prohibits ex-legislators from directly lobbying their former colleagues for one year after they leave the Legislature, and a measure on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would slightly strengthen that by barring legislators who quit mid-term from lobbying during the remainder of that two-year-session, plus another year.

Still, the oil industry’s strategy this year was striking. After failing last year to prevent a new law requiring massive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, oil came back this year lobbying hard. Democrats held a supermajority in the Legislature, but were divided over how to redesign the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program, which forces businesses to reduce emissions or pay for permits to pollute.

The oil industry’s goal: to shape the next phase of cap and trade through 2030. And it had hired four former lawmakers—all Democrats—to advocate on its behalf.

Each hailed from predominantly working-class, Latino districts and joined an influential “mod squad” of moderates during their legislative tenures, which covered various periods between 2002 and 2015. Two are from Kern County, the biggest oil producer in California. And three quit their elective office mid-term to work for industry.

All four declined interviews for this article, as did their employers. Three were registered lobbyists during the peak of cap and trade negotiations this year:

Henry Perea, the son of a Fresno City Council member and grandson of Mexican immigrants, made his mark in the Assembly as the former leader of its mod caucus before quitting mid-term, initially to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. Now he lobbies for the Western States Petroleum Association.

Felipe Fuentes, raised in the San Fernando Valley, worked as a legislator to secure tax credits to keep filmmakers in the state, then was named to the Los Angeles Times 2016 “naughty” list for bailing on his Los Angeles City Council seat to become a lobbyist. His firm’s clients include an oil production company.

Michael Rubio, who worked his way up in Kern County politics, abruptly quit the state Senate in 2013 to work for Chevron, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

• A fourth is not a registered lobbyist, but manages government affairs for a refinery company: Nicole Parra, whose father was a Kern County supervisor, won election to the Assembly at age 32 and also became a mod caucus leader, known for sometimes endorsing Republicans.

“The industry showed incredible smarts by going out and hiring these people. Nationally, the oil industry is very Republican,” said David Townsend, a Democratic political consultant who knows all four through his work running a fundraising committee that helps elect business-friendly Democrats.

“Their knowledge base is enormous. Their relationships are broad-based and deep. If I were in trouble, they are some of the ones I’d hire,” Townsend said.

Oil companies have a long history of fighting against the aggressive climate policies backed by many California Democrats. This year, though, instead of fighting against cap and trade, oil teamed with other business interests to lobby to make cap and trade more industry-friendly. In the final deal that lawmakers approved on a bipartisan vote in July, oil won a new law forbidding local air-quality districts from enacting emissions restrictions tighter than the state’s—as well as a potential perk worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Leading environmental groups supported the bill to extend cap and trade for another decade, but other environmentalists wound up opposing it for being too easy on polluters.

“This easy crossing from legislator to advocate for the industry has happened before, but it seems to have been happening recently in greater bulk. So that, to me, is kind of distressing,” said Kathryn Phillips, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, which opposed the cap-and-trade plan. “These are people who have been friends with the people they are going to lobby.”

Many aspects of those relationships play out in ways the public never sees—through text messages and phone calls, or at private get-togethers. Weeks before lawmakers voted on the final cap-and-trade bills, Senate leader Kevin de León dined with Perea and Rubio at an intimate Sacramento restaurant known for $44 steaks.

De León, a Los Angeles Democrat who has carried many clean-energy bills, said former lawmakers didn’t get any special treatment from him.

“I sit down with everybody across the spectrum. That’s my job as the leader of the Senate,” he said. “I have to sit down with all perspectives, whether it’s oil, whether it’s clean energy, whether it is labor unions, whether it’s businesses.”

After Perea became a lobbyist, he met with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to talk about cap and trade, and held additional meetings with the speaker’s staff, Rendon acknowledged. But the speaker rejected the idea that former lawmakers were especially influential in negotiating the next phase of California’s landmark climate policy.

“On an issue like cap and trade, where members arrive with a certain set of values and with information already, I am inclined to think that this is less impactful,” Rendon said.

On the other hand, former lawmakers—especially those who served most recently—can bring unique insider know-how to any lobbying effort. They understand caucus dynamics, know how to tailor persuasive messages to particular legislators, and enjoy unusual access to public officials.

Signs of that were on display throughout the year in the bustling Capitol. In April, Parra participated in a lunchtime discussion with legislative staffers about professional advancement for women of color, joined by a legislator, a lawmaker’s chief of staff and an aide to the governor who works on environmental issues. And in September, as lawmakers began a long night voting on dozens of bills, Perea strolled down a Capitol hallway packed with lobbyists and slipped into the back door of the Assembly chamber—right past a sign labeling the room restricted to “members and staff only.”

Well-connected environmental advocates also roam the halls. Last year, for example, the Assembly honored former legislator Christine Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat who now runs a group that works to expand use of electric vehicles.

When politicians leave office, they frequently take a job developing a lobbying strategy—but not directly lobbying. Rubio did that when he quit the Legislature in 2013 to work for Chevron, as did Perea when he resigned in 2015 to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. But as the cap-and-trade negotiations heated up this year, both officially registered as lobbyists—a sign that they anticipated having a lot more direct contact with lawmakers. Perea left the pharmaceutical group to join the Western States Petroleum Association as a registered lobbyist in May. The next month, Rubio registered as a lobbyist for Chevron. In September, he filed paperwork with the Secretary of State ending his registration as a lobbyist. (Both men scored spots this year on a popular list of the 100 most influential players around the Capitol.)

Fuentes was elected to the Los Angeles City Council after he was termed out of the Assembly in 2012. He quit the City Council last year to become a lobbyist with a firm called the Apex Group, whose many clients include Aera Energy—a firm that drills for oil in the San Joaquin Valley.

Parra, after being out of elected office for eight years, was hired by Tesoro (now Andeavor) in November as a manager of state government affairs.

No one has complained to California’s political watchdog that the former lawmakers broke any ethics rules in their advocacy work this year. The assemblyman carrying the bill to lengthen the time lawmakers are banned from lobbying said it’s not inspired by any of the Legislature’s recent departures.

Still, even if legal, the idea that personal relationships may influence statewide policy can be disconcerting, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

“If we think about what we’re worried about when it comes to any lobbyist, it’s the idea that our lawmakers are making decisions based on what hired guns are asking them to do as opposed to what’s good public policy,” Levinson said. “Lobbyists have an outsized influence on lawmakers, and that is exponentially increased when that lobbyist is a former lawmaker.”

Even if former lawmakers held office at different times than today’s legislators, they may be connected through other political circles. That was the case for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, whose time in the lower house coincided with Perea but not the other three. She knew them, though, through California’s larger network of Latino Democrats.

Gonzalez Fletcher said she never felt pressured by the former legislators as the cap-and-trade negotiations advanced—perhaps because she declared her support for the bill early. Still, she saw them around the Capitol or ran into them while out for after-work drinks.

“There was a lot of checking in: ‘Where are people? Where do you think things will land?’ It felt more like information-gathering in my brief discussions with former members,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “I didn’t feel a lot of hard lobbying going on.”

At a time when many lawmakers worry that Sacramento’s lobbying corps isn’t as diverse as either the state or the Legislature (Latinos make up 39 percent of Californians and 23 percent of state legislators), the oil industry has been represented by black and Latino lobbyists in the Capitol for several years. Its move to bring on the four Latino former lawmakers reflects a larger economic shift in California.

“It’s not because they are Latino,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant with expertise in Latino politics. “It’s because they represented districts that are poor and working-class. There just happens to be a very strong relationship between race and class in California.”

Madrid said working-class communities respond to industry arguments about the cost of environmental regulation—either as consumers who will see the cost of gas increase, or as workers who want to keep blue collar jobs in their regions. With Republicans divided over cap and trade, and lacking much clout in the Capitol, it was logical for oil to bring on some prominent Democrats.

“You’re starting to see a transformation of what has traditionally been a right-left, red-blue, Republican-Democrat divide,” he said. “There is a realignment occurring.”

Another indication emerged five days before lawmakers voted on the cap-and-trade extension. The California Business Roundtable, a group of 30 companies including Chevron and Valero, enlisted a new lobbyist: Richie Ross, former bare-knuckles chief of staff to one of the most powerful Democratic Assembly speakers in state history, Willie Brown.

Today, Ross is unusual among Sacramento lobbyists because he is also a political consultant whose clients include 10 Democratic legislators—giving him financial connections both to the groups that pay him to lobby, and the politicians who pay him for campaign advice.

He said he provided advice to the Roundtable and did not lobby his political clients in the Legislature: “They had me register (as a lobbyist) because at that point, everyone was uncertain as to whether they would need me to lobby.”

The Roundtable’s president, Rob Lapsley, is a longtime Republican. But he said business groups knew that when it came to cap and trade, they needed Democrats involved to get the plan they wanted from a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“Richie is a smart, strategic advisor with long-term relationships. We found that of great value,” Lapsley said. “He goes back a long way. And he was very helpful in getting additional insights.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Days after losing his position as leader of Assembly Republicans, Chad Mayes was entertaining lobbyists and lawmakers at a bar near the state Capitol, raising money for his re-election with a live video message from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I think you are the future of the Republican Party,” Schwarzenegger said to Mayes from the big screen, as guests sipped cocktails and nibbled on ahi tuna hors d’oeuvres.

The Republican former governor went on to praise Mayes—a Yucca Valley resident whose 42nd District includes much of the Coachella Valley, from La Quinta going west—for negotiating a bipartisan deal to extend California’s cap-and-trade program, an environmental policy Schwarzenegger helped create to curb global warming by forcing companies to pay for emitting greenhouse gases. Schwarzenegger called the deal “a fantastic way to move forward.”

If the Republican Party will go in that direction, then we will have an increase in the membership of the Republican Party,” Schwarzenegger said. “Because this is what the people want us to do.”

The comment illuminated a vast schism among California Republicans, who are divided over how to bring their shrinking party back to relevancy. The very reason Schwarzenegger called Mayes the “future of the Republican party”—his work on climate change—was what ultimately cost him his leadership post. Most of his fellow Republicans voted against the cap-and-trade bill, even though it was backed by traditional GOP interests including oil companies and the Chamber of Commerce. Republican activists saw Mayes’ support for a program that adds costs for businesses and their consumers as a betrayal of GOP values. They turned up the pressure until he was forced in late August to resign. Schwarzenegger, by contrast, saw a modern Republican taking pragmatic steps to broaden the party’s appeal in a state where voters overwhelmingly support policies that address global warming.

Mayes’ ouster shows how hard it is for California Republicans to embrace a more moderate stance. A decade ago, Schwarzenegger famously said California Republicans were “dying at the box office,” because hard-right politics appealed to so few people in an increasingly diverse state. Since then, the GOP has slipped even further. Today just 26 percent of California voters are registered Republicans, and internal polling Mayes highlighted shows that 7 percent of state Republicans are considering abandoning the party because of its stance on climate change. The GOP holds only one-third of the seats in the Legislature—too few to be of any consequence on most issues—and a Republican hasn’t won a statewide contest in California since Schwarzenegger’s re-election in 2006.

“We have one of two options,” Mayes said during a recent interview in his Capitol office. A stack of books on the table included a collection of Christian prayers and photos from the Civil Rights Movement. On the wall hung a Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Dare mighty things.”

“We can either convert individuals to become Republicans, or we can reflect California values and as a party begin to move toward Californians. What we’ve been doing for the last 20 years is not converting Californians to our ideas. We’ve been repelling them, and we haven’t been reflecting Californians; we’ve become more insular and ideologically pure. And both of those are not winning strategies.”

Donald Trump’s victory last year, campaigning against climate policy and immigration, made it harder for Mayes to convince fellow Republicans that moderation was the key to electoral success. Even though Trump was trounced in California, he won the highest office in the land by appealing to the far right.

Mayes’ cap-and-trade vote in July was the tipping point for conservative activists who wanted him out, but it was not the first time Mayes had tried to craft a different image for California Republicans. Earlier this year, he took criticism from the right after the Assembly Republican caucus honored gay-rights icon Harvey Milk in a social media post.

During almost two years as leader, Mayes brought his caucus to a homeless shelter and spoke often about California’s soaring poverty rate. He wrote a bill (still pending) that would give welfare recipients incentive grants for completing their education. He negotiated with Democrats on a bill enacted last year that taxes health plans to bring in more money to provide health care for the poor. Mayes and Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon became known for their rare bipartisan bromance.

Yet Mayes is hardly a liberal sop. The son of an evangelical preacher, Mayes opposed Democrats’ plan to raise gas taxes to pay for road repairs. He voted against bills to increase the minimum wage and pay overtime to farmworkers. He earned an A+ rating from the Firearms Policy Coalition for his votes supporting gun rights.

Still, his chummy approach to Democrats didn’t fly with Republican party activists, who publicly accused him of having an extramarital affair with a former assemblywoman as the cap-and-trade vote loomed. (Mayes declined to answer questions about his personal life, other than to confirm that he is going through a divorce.) After the vote—and his participation in a bipartisan celebration in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office—the California Republican Party took the unusual step of formally urging Mayes to step down. Party leaders felt the cap-and-trade extension was both bad policy and bad politics, because in delivering Republican votes for the bill, Mayes allowed some Democrats to vote against it. The Democratic supermajority had splintered over cap and trade, with some progressives opposing it as too business-friendly, and some moderates withholding support to appease conservative voters in their swing districts.

Harmeet Dhillon, who represents California on the Republican National Committee, said Mayes was too focused on being liked by Democrats, and criticized him for handing Brown a victory by supporting cap and trade.

“We should all be bipartisan on issues that genuinely two sides can agree on. But there are no two sides to over-taxing Californians,” she said. “This is not an area where we can agree to have different shades as Republicans.”

Dhillon believes the new caucus leader, Assemblyman Brian Dahle, will be more reliably conservative. Dahle is a farmer who voted against extending cap and trade. His hometown of Bieber in Lassen County has 300 residents, and his rural district is solid Trump country.

Dahle is also known for building relationships across the aisle—he has already hosted the Democratic Assembly speaker at his home—and said Mayes’ bipartisanship makes sense in a statehouse so heavily dominated by Democrats. But Mayes “moved a little faster than the party could keep up with,” Dahle said during an interview at the Sacramento fundraiser.

“He takes huge gambles. And unfortunately, it was maybe too fast for some of the Republicans in California.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. For more analysis by Laurel Rosenhall, visit calmatters.org/articles/category/california/politics.

Published in Politics

Most weekdays, a long line of rail cars delivers thick slabs of steel to a factory in Fontana, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, and 60 miles northwest of Palm Springs. Deep in the bowels of California Steel Industries, the slabs are toasted until they glow white-hot; they’re then rolled into thin sheets used to make shipping containers, metal roofing and car wheels.

The plant churns out more than 2 million tons of flat rolled steel each year, using enormous amounts of natural gas and electricity, and releasing more than 190,000 metric tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide annually. Now, California Steel and many other businesses have to pay for their carbon emissions under California's new cap-and-trade law, the first of its kind in the nation.

Last November, the company participated in the state's first auction of carbon allowances, purchasing an undisclosed number, each worth one metric ton of carbon dioxide and selling for $10.09. The online auction went fairly smoothly, says Brett Guge, executive vice president of finance and administration at the company. But for Guge, the long-term challenge is finding ways to meet California's ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction targets (down to 1990 levels by 2020) while remaining profitable.

The Golden State forged ahead with the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program despite the U.S. Senate's 2010 failure to pass a national program. Given the state's history of implementing environmental regulations that later become national policy, a successful cap-and-trade system could serve as a federal model. If cap-and-trade in California "fails, or is perceived to have failed, then that could be the nail in the coffin for cap-and-trade consideration as a policy instrument in Washington," says Robert Stavins, a Harvard professor who studies climate policy.

While its overall impact on U.S. emissions won't be major, the California experiment makes several improvements to existing cap-and-trade strategies. It covers more sources of pollution than the 5-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeastern U.S., which applies only to power plants. The European Union started the world's largest carbon cap-and-trade program in 2005, but it had a significant flaw: The initial stage of the program gave away too many free credits, resulting in some power companies raking in windfall profits by raising electricity prices, even though they didn't have to pay for their allowances. It also contributed to low prices for carbon allowances, which provides scant incentive to cut emissions.

Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, the agency steering the state program, is confident that California's effort will be different. The program covers 360 businesses, which represent about 600 facilities that each release more than 25,000 metric tons yearly—enough to put a big dent in California's total carbon output. The EU's difficulty, Nichols notes, was that authorities didn't have an accurate measure of the total quantity of emissions initially. California, though, has had a greenhouse-gas reporting requirement in place since 2008.

"We knew (what polluters) were actually putting into the atmosphere," says Nichols. "That gave us the assurance that if we started a (cap-and-trade) program … we would be able to implement it in a way that would not cause the kinds of problems that occurred in Europe."

Fraud could be another obstacle, but experts agree the state is equipped to keep that to a minimum. The Air Resources Board uses third-party verifiers to check reported emissions, and has a system to track allowances and prove their authenticity. Companies that fail to supply enough credits to cover their emissions are fined by having to purchase four times the number of outstanding allowances. While not flawless, the program is unlikely to suffer from market manipulation and fraud, according to an analysis by the University of California at Los Angeles.

But even if the cap-and-trade system works as intended, its economic impacts are a big unknown. Because of its many regulations, high electricity rates and taxes, California is already a costly place to do business.

Guge is worried there won't be a feasible way to reduce the carbon dioxide output of his company's gas-powered furnaces, which account for 75 percent of the plant's total releases. Without reductions, his company will have to pay for more allowances as the cap tightens, but it's reluctant to pass those increased costs on to customers, because that might put it at a competitive disadvantage.

Proponents of cap-and-trade hope the system will drive innovations, with new companies popping up to provide emissions-curbing breakthroughs. In late January, the Sacramento-based firm Clean Tech Advocates launched to do just that. It works to help clean tech developers get state funding, generated from the carbon-credit auctions, for their projects, and its consultants help companies reduce emissions. Founder Patrick Leathers says that, over time, the auctions will bring in "billions of dollars," which will boost the state's clean tech industry and result in carbon-cutting solutions for companies dealing with cap-and-trade.

Environmentalists—and businesses—are hoping he's right.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment