Voters taking green issues into their own hands

Source: Jennifer Yachnin and Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder, E&E reporters • Posted: Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The brutal campaign for the White House has dominated the election cycle — and worried House and Senate lawmakers dependent on the top of the ticket to sway their own races — but there’s a whole other set of pitched battles going on down-ballot, covering everything from energy regulation to legalized drugs.

In Florida, the clash is over the future of solar-generated electricity, while in Nevada, it’s about deregulation of the electric grid.

Among the many decisions before California voters is whether to legalize recreational marijuana, while in Colorado, voters could make future fights over oil and gas development less likely to go before voters.

Some of the proposals come from citizen-initiated ballot initiatives, while others are promoted by state legislatures.

One of the most contentious battles this cycle is a measure in Washington state that could implement the nation’s first carbon tax (ClimateWire, Oct. 17).

Environmental groups in the state have split over support for what is known as Initiative 732 because of how it would direct revenue from the new tax.

According to the website Ballotpedia, which tracks political candidates and ballot initiatives, voters will decide 71 statewide measures this cycle from coast to coast, the largest number of ballot proposals since 2006.

Still, numerous proposals failed to meet petition requirements or were pulled back by state lawmakers and won’t be on the ballot, including an initiative to bar hydraulic fracturing in Michigan, a measure to mandate the permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste from power plants in California, and a proposal to slow or block additional large-scale wind energy development in Maine.

Here’s a look at some of the key ballot initiatives before voters on Election Day:

Alabama

Amendment 2 to the Alabama Constitution aims to protect money generated by or set aside for state parks from being transferred for other government functions.

However, funds could be diverted from the parks if visitor revenue exceeds $50 million in a year, but because guest revenue from the state parks runs around $33 million each year, transfers are not likely soon.

According to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, $15 million has been transferred away from state parks funds since 2012.

Opponents to the amendment think there could be a better use for the government’s money than state parks and believe it could lead to park privatization, but the amendment has high overall support. It passed the state Senate in a 29-1 vote and the House in an 87-8 vote.

California

The plastic bag industry has two measures on California’s ballot this November. Proposition 67, the “Referendum to Overturn Ban on Single-Use Plastic Bags,” gives voters the option to preserve or reject the state’s plastic carry-out bag ban. The proposition allows grocery stores to charge customers 10 cents for a paper bag or more for a reusable bag.

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club’s California chapter are backing the law, which it says keeps plastic bags out of oceans and away from wildlife.

The Sierra Club also says a “yes” vote on the measure would “say no to big out-of-state plastic manufacturers who put this measure on the ballot to try to stop enforcement of the statewide ban,” according to its website.

Billionaire environmental advocate Tom Steyer also came out in support of the ban, saying “we can’t allow these corporations to continue to trash our beaches” (Greenwire, Aug. 23).

But a campaign called “No on 67,” led by a plastics industry trade association, says the 10-cent charge will do nothing to help the environment. PolitiFact California rated this statement “half true,” saying that nothing requires the revenue from the bag fee to be spent on environmental causes, but the statement ignores the environmental benefit of keeping plastic bags out of oceans and rivers.

If the plastic bag ban is upheld, voters have a chance to alter it with the “Environmental Fund from Reusable Bag Fees.”

Proposition 65, which is also backed by the plastic bag industry, would direct the money that grocery stores get from selling paper and reusable bags to environmental projects.

The profits would be placed into a fund controlled by the California Wildlife Conservation Board.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance said Amendment 67 is not about protecting the environment, but that Proposition 65 would do the job.

“This measure gives voters the opportunity to make sure that any state-mandated fee will go to environmental causes, which is what voters thought they were getting in the first place with [Proposition 67],” Lee Califf, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, said in a statement.

Also on California’s ballot is a measure to legalize the purchase and possession of marijuana for adults over the age of 21. Proposition 64 would impose a state excise tax on the retail sales of marijuana equal to 15 percent of the sales price and a state cultivation tax of $9.25 per ounce of flowers and $2.75 per ounce of leaves.

Colorado

Opponents of oil and gas development in the Centennial State failed to win a spot on the ballot this cycle for two measures aimed at curbing the use of hydraulic fracturing.

It could become even more difficult for them to do so in the future if a measure backed by the energy industry wins approval in November.

Amendment 71, formally known as the “Raise the Bar, Protect Our Constitution” campaign, would create stricter requirements to put ballot initiatives before voters.

The amendment would require a supermajority of 55 percent to pass any new amendments to the Colorado Constitution, rather than the simple majority under current law.

In addition, ballot initiatives would be required to show support with signature petitions from 2 percent of registered voters in each of Colorado’s 35 state Senate districts. Currently, there is no geographic requirement for the process, which mandates organizers to submit petitions with signatures equal to 5 percent of the total votes cast in the last election.

Amendment 71 has been heavily financed by the state’s oil and gas industry, including funds from Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, whose major donors include Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Noble Energy Inc.

Other major donors include Vital for Colorado, a coalition of business and civic organizations that advocates for “responsible oil and gas policy” in the state.

Colorado environmentalists and progressive organizations have opposed the measure (E&ENews PM, Sept. 28).

Florida

A controversial amendment addressing consumer rights over solar energy has environmental groups seething. Amendment 1 would allow citizens to own or lease solar equipment on their property while assuring the customers who do not use solar power that their rates will not increase for remaining on the electric grid.

The amendment is widely supported by electric companies but opposed by solar and environmental groups that supported an amendment to nix value-based taxes on renewable energy projects for commercial properties that was on the state’s August ballot (EnergyWire, Aug. 11).

“Floridians are being presented with a poisoned apple in the form of a confusing and misleading anti-solar amendment,” Tom Kimbis, interim president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a statement. “Amendment 1 restricts the freedom of Floridians to go solar and leaves them at the mercy of monopoly utilities.”

Environmental groups were recently outraged when leaked audio revealed that electric utilities had tried to mask the amendment as pro-solar (EnergyWire, Oct. 20).

Missouri

The Soils and Water Conservation Sales Tax is up for renewal on Missouri’s ballot this year. The measure would renew the existing tax, one-tenth of 1 percent, for 10 more years. The tax generates roughly $90 million each year for soil and water conservation and operation of the state park system. Amendment 1 has been renewed for the past 30 years and faced no real opposition to date.

Nevada

Voters in the Silver State will decide whether to deregulate Nevada’s electric grid, spurred in part by last year’s battle over rates paid by rooftop solar customers.

In the wake of that fight, when state regulators ended the retail rate for residential producers, solar advocates in the state pushed a measure to amend the Nevada Constitution to require an “open, competitive retail electric energy market.”

The measure will be presented to voters as Question 3, also known as the “Energy Choice Initiative.”

“The current solar rules aren’t working,” Chandler Sherman, deputy campaign director for the Bring Back Solar Alliance political action committee, supported by SolarCity Corp., told E&E News earlier this month (ClimateWire, Oct. 24). “Restructuring the market will allow for the innovative new energy sources we want to embrace.”

A Suffolk University poll conducted in September suggested the measure is likely to succeed.

That poll of 500 likely voters found 72 percent in favor of deregulation and 12 percent opposed. The survey had a 4.4-point margin of error.

North Dakota

In the mid-1990s, the Peace Garden State began dedicating a portion of the revenues from its oil extraction tax to offset potential state budget cuts to elementary and secondary education.

Next month, voters will decide on Measure 2, known as the “North Dakota Allocation of Oil Extraction Taxes Measure,” to determine whether that money, held in the Foundation Aid Stabilization Fund, can be used for other “education-related purposes.”

Put to voters by the state Legislature, the measure would allow state lawmakers to allocate money from the stabilization fund for uses like school construction or college scholarships. Currently, only the governor can tap expenditures from the fund for budget shortfalls.

“It’s a stranded asset, and we can’t use it, and we’ve got some good uses for it, such as the low-interest loan construction fund for schools, and this particular biennium we are going to need it to continue to keep K-12 funding whole,” North Dakota state Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R) told The Bismarck Tribune earlier this month.

Opponents of the measure fear that state lawmakers would effectively turn the stabilization fund into regular funding for elementary and secondary education. North Dakota has struggled with budget shortfalls as oil prices have dropped in recent years.

Oregon

Beaver State voters will decide whether to outlaw the sale of products made from a dozen different species.

If approved, Measure 100, known as the “Wildlife Trafficking Prevention Act,” would prohibit commerce involving parts or products made from cheetahs, elephants, jaguars, leopards, lions, pangolins, rays, rhinos, sea turtles, sharks, tigers and whales beginning in mid-2017.

“We must do all that we can to protect our world’s most iconic and endangered wildlife from extinction. Oregonians can do their part by voting YES on Measure 100 to take a strong stand against poaching and wildlife trafficking,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said in a statement following the measure’s ballot qualification earlier this year.

The Democratic lawmaker sponsored the measure as a part of a coalition that also included the Humane Society of the United States and the National Wildlife Federation.

Voters in Washington state approved a similar measure last year.

Rhode Island

Question 6 on the Ocean State ballot will ask voters to approve $35 million in “Green Economy Bonds.”

If approved, the measure would create $10 million in new bonds for a state bikeway program, $5 million for brownfield remediation projects, $5 million for matching grants for public recreation facilities development, and $4 million for a state land acquisition program, among other projects.

Washington

In addition to deciding whether to enact the nation’s first carbon tax, Washington state voters will be asked whether to continue a tax exemption for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles purchased in the state.

Voters must pick between repealing the state Legislature’s decision to exempt alternative-fuel vehicles valued at $35,000 or less from state sales and use taxes, or maintaining the exemption at a loss of about $2 million in revenue over a 10-year period.