Big Messy Deals: 2017 Legislative Year in Review

Joshua Stark Headshot

Bus in front of Sacramento capital buildingWhat a ride! This year the California Legislature passed some of the largest and most aggressive bills in state history, addressing our most pressing issues. From massive amounts of transportation funding and climate change policy to affordable housing and parks, California’s leadership made decisive moves.

Overall, we’ve been reminded how extraordinarily messy big deals can be, requiring both bold proposals and significant compromises. TransForm has built up some political goodwill in Sacramento and we saw some meaningful wins — but we also suffered a few painful setbacks. As a result, we have both opportunities to help implement promising new policies, and clarity on where we need to strengthen our relationships in the future.

Here’s our take on some of the biggest decisions made this year, and their implications for equitable and sustainable transportation and land use in California.

SB 1: Transforming our Transportation Funding

TransForm started our Sacramento office with one overarching purpose: to dramatically increase state funding for public transportation, walking, and biking. Over the past two years, Governor Brown and legislative leaders (in particular Senator Jim Beall of San Jose) provided an opportunity to achieve this aim by spotlighting the need to fix our state’s crumbling transportation systems.

This effort stalled last year, but it also galvanized the environmental justice and sustainable transportation advocacy community. We saw that our issues — safer streets, better bus and rail service, and reduced pollution — were not going to be addressed to any great degree unless we started making some serious noise.

We dove into this year identifying and bolstering champions for our issues in transportation funding. When the dust settled and Governor Brown signed SB 1 in April, we had largely won what we’d worked to achieve:

  • Nearly $1 billion annually to programs that fund public transportation
  • $100 million annually to the Active Transportation Program, which funds walking and biking improvements
  • Transit funding from sources other than fuel taxes (although fuel taxes remain an important part of the solution)

However, SB 1 came with what was effectively a poison pill for environmental justice advocates. Not only did the Legislature refuse to directly address transportation equity or prioritize our most disadvantaged communities, they approved a last-second, unscrupulous amendment exempting many of the biggest diesel trucks from better air quality regulations. Because of this underhanded deal, we remained united with our allies fighting to breathe, and opposed the bill. Read our blog post for more on SB 1.

SB 1’s passage helps set a clear course for some of TransForm’s work ahead: ensuring that programs and funds created by this new set of largely regressive taxes get invested in ways that reduce the need for people to drive a car to get where they need to go, make our streets safer and cleaner for our children and ourselves, and improve the air we breathe.

Transportation Equity

More money is great — but it’s not just about the size of the pot, it’s about how we spend it. California remains a state with huge, structural and infrastructural inequities. For years, TransForm and our allies have worked to shift our state’s transportation policies and funding to prioritize our most disadvantaged and harmed communities.

This year we pressed hard to make transportation equity a priority within the SB 1 discussion, with limited but significant wins. We were able, for example, to help secure considerable funding for transit and congested corridor management from a new Transportation Improvement Fee, a vehicle surcharge based in part on the value of the vehicle. This is a first step away from purely regressive fuel taxes.

We also helped achieve big wins on transportation equity in other ways. For a second year, TransForm and a coalition of allies sponsored a Transportation Equity Package comprised of three bills:

  • AB 17 (Holden): would have created a Student Transit Pass funding program at the state level. Though vetoed by the Governor, his veto statement offers hope for next year. We remain fully committed to creating a robust, statewide program to help students get to school. Students, particularly high school and community college kids, suffer from extremely high levels of poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness. Addressing their second largest expense (transportation) can go a long way toward helping them achieve academic success.
  • AB 179 (Cervantes): requires the Governor make every effort to ensure diverse appointments to the California Transportation Commission with expertise in transportation — signed by Governor Brown! The California Transportation Commission should truly represent all 39 million Californians and appointees should bring necessary credentials in transportation policy. We are happy to see that the Governor and Legislature shares our desire to ensure more diverse representation with needed expertise.
  • AB 1640 (E. Garcia): would have required the state to identify communities with the greatest transportation needs and impacts, and set aside 25% of a regional funding program to serve those communities. Sadly, AB 1640 never made it out of its first committee. It is now a “two-year” bill, meaning that it can be brought up again in 2018 by its author, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia.

Cap-and-Trade: a bold next step, and a wide-open field

Governor Brown set some lofty goals for his second-to-last year, including extending our state’s landmark carbon cap-and-trade program a two-thirds vote of the legislature. That was a tall hurdle, but in classic Brownian fashion, the Governor managed to put together a winning deal.

As a result, the cap-and-trade program will continue for ten additional years, to 2030. This stabilizes the market, promising strong revenues for years to come. But since it was authorized with a two-thirds vote, the money collected from the program can, theoretically, be used for anything at all — from fighting climate change to building freeways.

The budget deal for spending cap-and-trade dollars through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund was largely a good one, providing substantial revenues to important programs — particularly the vital Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program and the Low-Carbon Transit Operations Program — as well as urban forestry and urban greening, and Low Carbon Transportation (some of which pays for cleaner buses and trains).

However, this year’s deal did not include money for student transit passes, nor did it include further investment in the Active Transportation Program. It also did not guarantee that the programs receiving continuous appropriation up to now will continue to do so in future years.

Moving forward, TransForm and our allies must redouble our efforts to ensure that these dollars continue to fund programs that reduce pollution and provide real benefits for all Californians, particularly those hardest hit by climate change Programs to invest in affordable homes near effective public transportation, safer biking and walking options, and improved bus services in disadvantaged communities must continue to receive robust funding from cap-and-trade.

Strengthening climate policy: SB 150 signed!

ClimatePlan, TransForm, and NRDC teamed up this year with a bill to improve our regional connections to state goals for reducing climate pollution. SB 150 (Allen) will help align regional targets for reducing GHG emissions to our state goal of reducing climate pollution 40% by 2030 (only twelve years away, folks!). It also creates more transparency in the processes for achieving these alignments.

Big investments in housing affordability

A wide variety of housing bills were also passed this year. Prominent among them is SB 2 (Atkins), which creates a permanent source of funding for affordable housing — a need that has been severely underfunded since the elimination of redevelopment funding in 2012. Another big one is SB 3, which places a $4 billion housing bond on the November 2018 ballot. These two measures alone could raise $9 billion for affordable homes over the next five years.

We supported and advocated for both of these bills, and we’re glad we did. SB 2 in particular was passed by a narrow margin. We are very excited to see these steps being taken to help address the housing affordability, but California is not out of the woods yet! We are committed to continuing to partner with our housing advocacy allies to preserve and build more homes that are affordable to low- and moderate-income households.

Could next year be even crazier than this year?

With the new President, multiple two-thirds votes in the state Legislature, and a Governor shooting for (and largely hitting) the moon, 2017 was a right-wild year. However, especially at the state level, next year is already looking to be even wilder. Among the X factors: State Senate Leadership is already up for grabs, the Governor is termed out, it’ll be open season on cap-and-trade funds, and SB 1 is threatened with repeal at the ballot box.

So 2018 promises to be another interesting year, indeed. Stay tuned for another post soon with our priorities and predictions for 2018.

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.