top of page

Mixed Results On Green Ballot Questions In 2022 US Midterm Elections

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

Pro and con online signs regarding California Proposition 30

By Alfred Robert Hogan

Even though every election is a climate election, as ace teen eco champion Greta Thunberg astutely notes, the environment was directly posed as an issue before US voters only in California and New York state in the November 2022 midterm elections. The upshot results amounted to a split decision: one loss, one win.

In California, about 3/5 of voters protected their state’s multi-millionaires from a modest 1.75-percent temporary surtax, to be in place for 20 years or less (if emissions were to drop quickly enough), and favored more sicknesses and deaths from air pollution stemming from the state’s dirty transportation and rampant wildfires. Only the state’s richest 35,000 to 43,000 or so individuals and families—estimates vary—would have been affected by the surtax, in any event less than 0.1 percent of the state’s population. It would have begun on New Year’s Day 2023, to help accelerate the state’s upgrade to Zero Emissions Vehicles, with grant and loan incentives to buy electric cars; install more charging stations; hire more firefighters; and implement additional wildfire prevention measures. Bicycle lanes, bicycle shares, and rapid mass transit would also have benefitted. Each year, Prop 30 would have easily raised an estimated US $3.5 billion to $5 billion.

However, with 100 percent of the slowly counted regular ballots in, as of late afternoon Friday 11 November, Proposition 30 “Yes” votes totaled 41.1 percent (2,732,188), while “No” votes totaled 58.9 percent (3,907,907). Some late-arriving mail-in ballots, overseas-cast ballots. and provisional ballots still remain to be counted, for the official final tally.

California counties in which Proposition 30 won and lost.

The measure—which would have set up the Clean Cars and Clean Air Trust Fund— received virtually no corporate media news coverage outside California, one of a handful of US states that often sets a bellwether pace on innovative ballot measures and other reforms. It was one of seven propositions on the state ballot.

In early July 2022, a statewide poll of “likely voters,” conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, had found 63 percent favoring Prop 30 and 35 percent opposing. By a later PPIC poll, conducted in early September 2022, support had fallen to 55 percent for the measure and 40 percent opposing. Yet, only 42 percent then deemed passage “very important” to them, a number that varied little from Democrats to Republicans to independents. (That same poll also found that only 8 percent of likely voters recognized climate and environment as the topmost issue, tied for 4th place with water and drought. The top issue was inflation and the economy, at 29 percent.) By the mid-October 2022 PPIC poll, only 41 percent supported and 52 percent opposed Prop 30.

Leading the pro-Prop 30 effort was “Yes on 30: Clean Air California,” a broad umbrella coalition that included California Environmental Voters and the California State Association of Electrical Workers. Two additional committees supported Prop 30: “Yes on 30: Working Families and Environmental Voters to Expose Greedy Billionaires and CEOs,” and the “California Environmental Voters Issues Committee.” In addition, the measure was backed by the California Democratic State Party; two progressive Democratic U.S. Representatives—Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna; the mayors of such major cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Long Beach, and San Jose; the American Lung Association; 2020 Democratic POTUS nomination candidate and NextGen Climate President Tom Steyer; Bay Area 350; the Natural Resources Defense Council; the Southern Cristian Leadership Conference; Schools for Climate Action; the Alliance of Nurses for Health and Environment; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union; and the California Firefighters Local 288 union. Notably absent: the Sierra Club of California, whose national organization is based in San Francisco. The state club’s weak excuse: that some Prop 30 wildfire funding “could go to projects that have negative ecological consequences, and programs that Sierra Club California has opposed in the past.” Editorial endorsements in support came from at least two state newspapers: the San Francisco Chronicle and the Bay Area Reporter, the latter of which had enthused, “This tax makes sense if the state is truly going to embrace zero-emission vehicles. Vote YES on Prop 30." (The majority of San Franciscans did vote yes on Prop 30.)

the Clean Cars and Clean Air Trust Fund

Endorsement statements made that were posted online included:

  • · Bill Magavern, the Coalition for Clean Air policy director: “Most Californians continue to regularly face choking levels of smog and soot, and failure to meet healthy air standards could mean a loss of federal transportation funds. The state is not on track to meet our 2030 standard for reducing climate-changing pollution, largely because transportation emissions have stayed stubbornly high. With our lungs under assault from the coronavirus respiratory infection, we–now, more than ever–need to protect Californians from lung-searing emissions. The urgency of our air pollution and climate crises demand that we clean up our vehicles rapidly.” In fact, out of some 39 million people living in the Golden State, 38 million breathe polluted air each day.

  • Mark W. Toney, executive director of the environmental group TURN: "What if we could lower the cost of electric vehicles, build more charging stations, and reduce monthly electricity bills at the same time? TURN supports Prop 30 because it ensures that the funds necessary to accelerate electrification of the transportation system to dramatically reduce carbon emissions doesn’t come out of the pockets of families struggling to make ends meet."

  • David Leon Zink, survivor of the devastating “Camp Fire” that wiped out Paradise CA in November 2018 and killed 68 people: "The scars of the Camp Fire in Paradise linger on here in Chico. Like many others, I lost my home in that devastating fire. The Camp Fire leveled my community—90 percent of structures in Paradise were lost in the blaze. Butte County records find that many of the unhoused population here in Chico were my neighbors in Paradise. A wildfire can take away someone's home and rob them of their livelihood. Prop 30 provides CAL FIRE with the long-term funding necessary to take a preventative approach to forest management and avoid the next Paradise." (In late October 2019, ace teen eco champion Greta Thunberg and her father Svante Thunberg were guided through the charred remains of Paradise, for a first-hand look at the climate-fueled fire’s utter devastation.)

In opposition to Prop 30 were two committees: “No on 30” and “No on 30 - Educators Opposed to Corporate Handouts.” In addition to Newsom—whose political committee donated $1.9 million to the No side—opponents included the California Republican Party, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Teachers Association, and the ultra- conservative, fiercely anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. (The teachers union mostly appeared covetously jealous that the money would not go directly to schools.) At least five state newspapers editorialized against Prop 30: The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Orange County Register, The Los Angeles Times, and The Sacramento Bee, which inveighed in part, "In simple terms, Prop 30 is Lyft’s way of getting someone else to pay the bill for the transition from gas- to electric-powered cars. That someone else? Californians earning more than $2 million a year, whose income tax would go up by 1.75 percentage points." The San Diego paper fretted that resulting spending might exceed the ”hard cap” Gann limit imposed by voters in 1979—an arbitrary and artificial cap that, if need be, could be revised upward or even ended. Other editorials either snobbishly kvetched that the measure would “tap into class envy” or hinted that rich taxpayers might flee the state because of the tiny and temporary surtax or urged voters to leave such matters to the professional politicians. (Even with the surtax, high-end taxpayers in California would still only pay 15.05 percent in state income taxes.)

Most analysts agree that the pivotal turning point came on Monday 12 September, when a widely and repeatedly aired, aggressive, and misleading TV advert featured the state’s conservative Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom opposing Proposition 30. In ad blitz’s spots, he railed against the Lyft ride-hailing service financially backing Proposition 30, deriding the measure as “a special-interest carve-out” and “a Trojan horse that puts corporate welfare above the fiscal welfare of an entire state.” (In actual fact, Lyft—though it donated $45 million to the pro-Prop 30 side—would have received no direct payments and backed Prop 30 only after the measure was already written by environmentalists. Under California law, Lyft and Uber will be required to have at least 90 percent of the distances driven by their contracted cars as clean-energy ZEVs—predominantly meaning electric—by 2030.)

As California Environmental Voters CEO Mary Creasman told Cal Matters, Newsom’s fervent opposition “100%” contributed to the loss, as did “lies” from the “No” juggernaught on what it would do. As she explained, Prop 30 “had a record number of billionaires against it, it had complete falsehoods thrown at it, and it had the most popular Democratic leader in the state against it. And we still got 40% of the vote.”

Newsom and his proxies cited a 2022 California Assembly-passed environmental pledge (not an actual appropriation) that designated a modest $10 billion for ZEV transition over some years, and a decision by the California Air Resources Board, also made in mid-2022, to ban sales of only new gas-powered cars and only as of far-off 2035, as having done enough already on the environment.

Of course, Newsom has a half-century-plus history of close personal and political ties to the fossil fuels industry. Back in 1973, on behalf of his close longtime family friends the Getty oil family, Newsom dressed up as a priest to deliver ransom money in Italy to the organized-crime kidnappers of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III, one of the grandchildren of miserly oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. (It took an ear cut off the younger Getty being sent to finally persuade the elder Getty to provide the ransom, and end the five-month-long kidnapping—part of which sum he charged his son 4 percent interest on, as a loan.)

In the December 2003 runoff election against leftist Matt Gonzalez of the Green Party for mayor of San Francisco, Newsom prevailed by just 53 to 47 percent, after the Democrats brought in their “big guns” to shill for Newsom, including former VPOTUS Al Gore, former POTUS Bill Clinton, outgoing mayor Willie Brown, and formerly progressive civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson Jr. Newsom was also backed by multiple business groups and corporate interests, and was married for eight years to later far-right Fox News Channel “legal analyst” Kimberly Guilfoyle. (His ex-wife left FNC amid major personal scandal, and she later dated and lives unmarried with Donald J. Trump Jr., son of the 45th POTUS, and is engaged to be married to that son.) If the Green Party had won its first major-city mayorship, that would have psychologically given that progressive party a significant boost. Newsom has been embroiled in multiple personal scandals as well.

Evidently, in 2022, bankrolling the ambitious Newsom’s prospective run for the 2024 Democrat presidential nomination mattered vastly more to him than saving lives and preventing illness, more than cleaner air and fewer wildfires. So, he chose to distort the facts and zealously safeguarded the wallets of his prospective high-end wealthy donors, some analysts contended.

Prop 30 marked the 26th environment-related ballot question in California since 1926, and the first since 2018. In November 1990 alone, four out of the five—including Prop 128, Big Green—failed. (One had also passed in June 1990, on the state’s primary election ballot.)

And so, with Prop 30’s failure, Californians will continue to endure “by far the worst air pollution in the entire country,” Bill Magavern of the Coalition for Clean Air told Inside Climate News. “We’ve had summers of horrendous wildfires, and smog and particle pollution, and Prop 30 was a chance to take us to a clean air future…We’re going to continue to be plagued by smoke and soot and smog in our air, which means thousands of people will die unnecessarily every year in California from air pollution. We could have stopped that.” Environmentalists and health advocates say they will continue pushing the California State Assembly and will likely try again with another ballot initiative at the polls.

Back in 1990, the year of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, the state’s Proposition 128, known as the “Big Green” ballot initiative, seemed to suffer a similar fate as Proposition 30 did in 2022. Even as POTUS 41 George H.W. Bush successfully pushed and lied his way toward an “oil war” in Kuwait and Iraq, some environmentalists really hoped Prop. 128's seeming impending passage would set off a national pro-environment action trend. Big Green’s key purposes were to:

· Ban 20 cancer-causing pesticides used by agriculture by 1997 (though only if substitutes could be found or developed)

· Reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gases by 40 percent to slow global warming

· Curtail clear-cut logging of forests

· End offshore oil drilling except in “national emergencies” and establish a $500 million oil spill cleanup fund

· Allocate to redwood trees and forests preservation $300 million

· Devote to environmental restoration projects $40 million

· Vouchsafe for a Habitat Conservation Fund $30 million and

· Create an elected environmental advocate to implement and oversee these rules.

As Big Green’s campaign manager Bob Mulholland confidently told The New York Times in April 1900, “There’s no way we can lose. This is a done deal. We can’t lose unless there’s an earthquake that stops California.” Indeed, polls showed Big Green passing by at least a 15-percent margin at one point. Yet in November 1990, the measure failed by 64.35 percent to 35.65 percent, close to 2 to 1.

While some ardent environmentalists thought Big Green—Prop 128, the “Environment and Public Health Bonds”—was actually much too under-ambitious, some of its more milquetoast backers quickly expressed chagrin. Carl Pope, then the conservation director for the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, and later its president, told The Los Angeles Times in November 1990: “It is clear that the public sent the environmental community a message…They said they want environmental reform presented in smaller chunks, and that is a lesson for us. So we will be faced with a lot more ballot measures next time if the governor and the state Legislature can’t handle their jobs.” California Assemblyman and Proposition 128 avid supporter Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), called the defeat a “humbling experience.” (Some had dubbed it the “Hayden Initiative,” in his honor.) Many Hollywood celebrities had also backed Prop. 128. He added to The Los Angeles Times, “You can’t take anything for granted…You can’t be overconfident.” And William Reilly, conservative Republican POTUS Bush 41’s administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, weighed in with The Los Angeles Times in November 1990, “Proposition 128 simply tried for too much too fast. Far from signaling an end to public interest in the environment, California’s voters showed their concern that this particular initiative was confusing, fraught with unknowns for the state’s economy, and attempted to do too much at once.”

Now, fast forward to 2022, and according to the definitive Ballotpedia Web site, Prop 30 proponents had spent about US $48 million, (including $45 million donated by Lyft), whereas opponents had spent $25 million—making Prop 30 the USA’s fourth-most-costly ballot question of 2022. (Usually, as with Prop 128, the anti-environment side vastly outspends the pro-environment one.)

Monies raised would have been allocated this way:

· 35 percent for new charging stations,

· 45 percent for ZEV support programs, including for rebates and loans to lower-income EV buyers and EV buyers living in intensely polluted areas, and

· 20 percent for enhanced wildfire prevention (and thus air pollution control).