Although Proposition 39 gives the state leeway in how it picks energy-related… (David McNew / Getty Images )
Approved by voters in November, Proposition 39 is expected to raise close to $1 billion a year by eliminating a tax break enjoyed by some multistate businesses. The money, however, comes with a significant string attached: For the first five years, half of it must be spent on projects that improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse emissions. Gov. Jerry Brown wants to direct next year's allotment exclusively to public schools and community colleges, which isn't a bad idea. But he's doing it in a way that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the initiative.
Although Proposition 39 gives the state leeway in how it picks energy-related projects, it lays down several important guidelines. For example, it puts public schools at the top of the list of those eligible for grants from the new Clean Energy Job Creation Fund, ahead of colleges and universities, public buildings, job training programs and local public-private partnerships. It requires that grants be based on projects' "in-state job creation and energy benefits," and that they deliver more energy, health and safety benefits than they cost to complete. And it mandates that the money be appropriated "only to agencies with established expertise in managing energy projects and programs."
The Brown administration, however, wants to dole out all the fund's money in 2013 to public school districts and community colleges without regard to their needs or plans. Instead, the money would be distributed on a per-pupil basis, with a minimum grant of $15,000 per district. Nor would Brown require districts to spend more on energy efficiency, or create more jobs, than they'd planned to spend before Proposition 39 was passed.
Brown's approach appears to favor schools, but it may actually shortchange them. Although the administration's plan would send more than $450 million to schools and community colleges, all those dollars would be earmarked for energy projects. The Legislative Analyst's Office contends that schools should also be getting roughly $250 million from the general fund to spend as they please.
The governor's approach is a clever, two-birds-with-one-stone way to spend more Proposition 39 dollars on the courts, healthcare and other state priorities besides education. But voters didn't expect the clean energy fund's dollars to be spread indiscriminately and thinly around the state's schools and community colleges. The Legislature should make sure that schools compete for the dollars, and that the money goes to well-managed projects that will deliver the greatest return on the investment. Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), one of the main proponents of Proposition 39, is trying to lead his colleagues in that direction, and they should follow him.