When California lawmakers backed a landmark law that seeks to combat global warming, the key support came from a surprising group of legislators: Republicans.
As the GOP nationally looks to roll back climate policies, a contingent of California Republicans is tentatively embracing them in defiance of much of their party’s base and its congressional leaders.
California’s top Republican Assemblyman and a handful of his colleagues are looking to put a conservative imprint on climate policy and a new face on their party, which has seen its influence steadily decline in the state.
“California is different from the rest of the country, and California Republicans are different,” said Chad Mayes, the Assembly GOP leader. “The truth is, there are a large number of California Republican constituents who believe that we have to do something about climate change.”
Mayes, 40, the son of a preacher, has had a fast rise in Sacramento, where he became the GOP leader during his first term. He has tried to put a fresh face on the party, steering clear of President Donald Trump, who is unpopular in California, and looking to engage — from a conservative perspective — on issues like climate and poverty that are often seen as Democratic priorities.
Mayes said he began working with Brown’s administration and Democratic leaders when a dozen GOP Assembly members expressed interest in it. They were concerned that a California law enacted last year — which requires the state to meet aggressive goals for carbon reduction — would lead to much more costly regulations if cap and trade was allowed to expire.
But the eight Republicans who jumped on board are now seeing backlash from constituents who are frustrated they engaged on a policy that many in the party view as a stealth tax hike.
“A lot of conservative activists and donors work hard to elect our Republican legislators with the expectation that they’re going to hold the line against tax increases,” said Jon Fleishman, former executive director of the California Republican Party. “I feel taken advantage of.”
Enough Republicans voted for the cap and trade bill that some vulnerable Democrats were able to abstain or vote against the measure, said Fleishman, who runs a conservative blog. That could help them keep their seats in swing districts.
They also got pressure from Washington. Four Republicans in California’s congressional delegation — including Kevin McCarthy, the U.S. House majority leader — wrote a letter to their GOP counterparts in Sacramento last week urging not to vote for cap and trade.
Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, a Republican from a swing district in Southern California who voted for the bill, said he received more than 60 calls on his cellphone Tuesday about cap and trade. He shared the number on his Facebook page. He said he thinks much of the backlash is in response to misleading criticisms of the bill on conservative talk radio and blogs.
The GOP lawmakers joined most Democrats on Monday night to approve a bill that keeps California’s cap-and-trade program alive for another decade. The five-year-old program, which was set to expire in 2020, puts a cap on carbon emissions that’s reduced each year. Businesses such as oil refiners, cement producers and food processors must obtain permits for each ton of carbon they emit.
Republicans have a long history with cap and trade, which was developed through legislation signed in 2006 by-then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. It was conceived as a market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gases, giving businesses to flexibility to figure out on their own how to reduce their carbon footprint or to choose not to, albeit at a price.
“I hope Republicans around the country can learn from the example of Assemblyman Mayes and his fellow Republicans that we can fight for free market policies to clean up our environment for our children at the same time we fight for a booming economy,” Schwarzenegger wrote on Facebook Monday night.
To win over Republicans, Democrats agreed to continue a series of expiring tax breaks and repeal a controversial fire-protection fee paid by rural landowners. They passed another measure that may give Republicans more of a say in how to spend money collected through cap and trade in the future. And they included provisions that will make it easier for oil, agriculture and other industries to comply.
Many business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, came out in support of the deal. The Western States Petroleum Alliance called the deal a “balanced approach” between limiting emissions and protecting jobs.
The concessions — and the hint of involvement by the oil industry — sparked a rebellion on the left that nearly tanked the legislation. Environmental justice advocates said the program was a gift to the oil industry and should be far more aggressive.
But Brown and lawmakers who backed the bill argue California’s bipartisan approach is one that can be replicated elsewhere.
California is “the leader that’s going to show other states and other countries how you can use a market-based system to reduce carbon and how you can change your economy to be a green economy so that we can protect this earth,” said Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, an Oceanside Republican.