Environmental justice leaders say Proposition 30 will help struggling areas

RIALTO, Calif. — Ana Gonzalez grew up watching the Inland Empire transform from citrus groves and grape vines to warehouses and retail distribution centers. The growing area east of Los Angeles now has 4.65 million people — and 1 billion square feet of warehouse space.

In 2015, one of those warehouses was built in front of his old house, blocking his view of the suburban neighborhood. Soon after, her son battled bronchitis and pneumonia. “It got so bad that I took him to the ER three to four times a year,” she said. Her son, now 16, like many others in the region developed asthma due to air pollution. He became concerned that state policies were ignoring the predominantly Hispanic and low-income residents of his community.

Gonzalez, 35, has evolved from a concerned parent to an environmental advocate. Her years as a specialist in bilingual and special education, along with homelessness, fueled her passion for advocating for marginalized communities. Today, he serves as executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, which advocates for the region on air quality and environmental justice issues.

Gonzalez and company endorsed Proposition 30 on the November ballot Funded primarily by ride-hailing company Lyft, it would levy an additional 1.75% tax on Californians earning more than $2 million per year to fund zero-emission vehicle purchases, electric charging stations, and wildfire prevention programs.

While the initiative would provide subsidies for low-income consumers, it would also subsidize businesses like Lyft and other ride-hailing companies by helping them add cleaner cars to their fleets. Lyft and other ride-hailing companies are under mandate to electrify at least 90% of their vehicle fleets by 2030.

The once-popular measure has slipped into toss-up territory. A September poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 55% of likely voters supported the measure, down from 63% in April. And it has divided environmentalists and Democrats.

The measure would raise an estimated $3.5 billion to $5 billion annually, increasing over time, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. Of this, 45% will primarily subsidize zero-emission vehicles and 35% will encourage the construction of residential and public charging stations, with at least half of each category directed to low-income families and communities. The remaining 20% ​​will fund wildfire suppression and prevention.

The state Democratic Party and the American Lung Association supported Proposition 30, calling it an innovative step that would expand access to electric vehicle chargers for every Californian, regardless of where they live or work.

But opponents include the California Teachers Association and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who recently called the measure “a Trojan horse that puts corporate welfare above the financial welfare of our entire state.”

California is a leader in pushing and paying for clean energy, but the state has been criticized for failing to equitably distribute California’s clean-car subsidies. For example, a 2020 study found that wealthy communities in Los Angeles County have more electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles than disadvantaged communities. And state Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a black Democrat from Elk Grove who will become Sacramento County sheriff next year, said the state’s push for electric vehicles exacerbates “environmental racism.”

Gonzalez points to studies, such as a report by Earthjustice, showing how people living near warehouses have lower incomes and a higher risk of asthma from air pollution generated by diesel trucks.

KHN reporter Heidi De Marco met with Gonzalez at her new home, where a development is proposed behind her property, to discuss why she and her organization support Proposition 30. Gonzalez said he was not paid by Lyft. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A picture shows a row of diesel trucks parked behind a gate
Diesel trucks contribute to the Inland Empire’s air pollution, which is among the worst in the nation.(Heidi DeMarco/KHN)

Q: Why is Proposition 30 important to your community?

Our families are dying, and no one is doing anything about it. We’re seeing all the illnesses linked to pollution, like asthma, pneumonia, lung cancer, COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]and even diabetes.

We only decided to support it because we felt, as a group, it was the right thing to do given how much we are affected by pollution from cars and trucks. There are layers upon layers of pollution.

Besides the influx of warehouses bringing tons of trucks and their diesel exhaust emissions, the Inland Empire is unique in terms of pollution. We have all the polluting industries you can think of, from rail yards to more diesel emissions, from trains to gas plants, which are emitting a lot of pollution. We have toxic landfills, airports and all the car traffic from the intersections of the 10, 60, 215 and 15 freeways.

Q: Proposition 30 is funded by Lyft, and Newsom opposes it, calling it a “cynical scheme” to get cleaner cars for the company’s fleet. Lyft has been criticized by labor groups for reducing compensation through gig work rather than providing fair wages and benefits. Why are you next to the elevator?

I see it two ways. One, yes, we need to hold Lyft accountable for the way they treat their drivers and make sure they’re paying them fair wages. I believe the elevator should be done better. But the way I see it, they’re transitioning to clean-energy vehicles where I have to give them props.

Even developers in our community have the money to transition their diesel trucks to clean energy, but they’re not investing in it. We have a climate change crisis, and I don’t necessarily see them as the enemy. I see them as trying to be part of the solution and transition to clean energy.

Q: Will this initiative make a difference in pollution from Los Angeles and the Inland Empire from the warehouse industry?

This will make electric vehicles and clean energy vehicles more affordable. And it will create the incentives that our low-income communities need, especially our small-business owners like our self-employed truck drivers who can’t afford to transition to a clean-energy vehicle or truck. This program will give them the subsidies they need so they can relocate.

This proposal will fund the expansion of our much-needed clean vehicle infrastructure. Because here we are asking everyone to switch to clean-energy cars, but we don’t have the infrastructure. Where will they charge the car when going to work? Or do they go to school? Or in your own home?

So, this campaign will take us in the right direction as I don’t see any other effort with the state. I think sometimes the governor is a little hypocritical because here he is trying to be a champion for climate change, but he’s not showing a real plan for transition compared to this proposal, where they at least have a plan to address that change.

An image shows an electric vehicle charging station
Ana Gonzalez and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice support Proposition 30, which would impose new taxes on wealthy Californians to help low-income communities buy zero-emission vehicles and install electric charging stations.(Heidi DeMarco/KHN)

Q: State and federal governments have already invested billions in clean-car programs. Why is Proposition 30 necessary?

It is going to take some time before the money reaches the appropriate organization. Another thing I see governments fail at is that they always leave out the most vulnerable, marginalized, disenfranchised communities like the Inland Empire. We’ve had oversight for so long, and every time the government creates all these programs, all these investments and infrastructure, local agencies sometimes don’t know about it — or they don’t do the work to ask for the money.

And what this program does through Prop 30 is it’s taxing the wealthy, people who make more than $2 million. We have always given tax breaks to the rich and it is time the rich paid their fair share.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, the editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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