Environmental Ballot Initiatives to Watch

State ballot initiatives could signal the public's mood on environmental issues.

Nov. 4, 2008 — -- As pollsters train their attention on the results of today's presidential election, environmentalists across the country will also be eyeing the outcome of several key state ballot initiatives.

With the economy in rough shape and the threat of a nationwide recession around the corner, environmentalists are looking to a number of states to help gauge the public's mood on energy conservation and natural-resource management.

The fate of these measures could help congressional representatives and the new administration determine how much public support to expect on future policy proposals.

At least 13 initiatives in nine states ask voters to weigh in on energy or environment-related issues, according to data collected by the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California Law School.

But five measures, in California, Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota, are attracting the most interest.

Missouri: Proposition C

The Missouri Clean Energy Initiative would require the state's investor-owned electric utilities to generate or purchase 2 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, such as wind, solar, biomass (including ethanol) and hydropower, by 2011. The standard incrementally increases to 15 percent by 2021. The state now has a voluntary goal for adopting renewable energy.

Although Missouri would be far from the first state to do this -- about half of the states have already accepted a similar standard -- environmentalists say this measure is unique because it is supported by a wide and diverse coalition.

"The federal government has not moved as quickly as it should have in moving renewable energy sources into the market," said Jim DiPeso, policy director for the nonprofit Republicans for Environmental Protection. "The states are taking it into their hands."

This renewable energy proposal has broad bipartisan support, he said.

Indeed, his colleagues at the Sierra Club, which has endorsed Barack Obama for president, also support this measure.

"It is the first time the environmental community, the public utilities and the business community and labor have all come together around a renewable portfolio standard," said Kathy Duvall, political director for the environmental nonprofit organization the Sierra Club.

It's expected to pass with a solid margin, she said, and will likely set the tone for future states.

Colorado: Amendment 58

One of 14 measures Coloradoans will vote on today, this initiative eliminates a tax credit for oil and gas producers and, instead, allocates the revenues for a handful of social and environmental purposes.

College scholarships receive the lion's share (60 percent) of the funds, but other issues, such as the acquisition and stewardship of natural habitats, a clean energy fund, transportation improvements and water quality control also benefit.

Proponents of the measure say it's an overdue effort to end the subsidies enjoyed by oil companies.

But opponents of the initiative, including the National Taxpayer's Union, say it will raise consumer prices for gasoline and natural gas.

A local poll, conducted in early October by the Denver-based research and consulting firm Ciruli Associates, showed that 51 percent of surveyed voters indicated they would vote for the amendment. Twenty-five percent said they were opposed to it.

Minnesota: The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment

Minnesota's only ballot initiative this year -- the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment -- asks voters to increase the sales-and-use tax by three-eighths of 1 percent to protect wetlands and wildlife habitat, preserve arts and cultural heritage, support parks and trails and other causes.

Supporters of the measure say the amendment is necessary to clean up polluted lakes, rivers and streams across the state. They also say that funding for natural habitat and wildlife is at a decades-long low.

Opponents of the amendment argue that though clean air and water are certainly important causes, this year's ballot initiative shifts the power away from elected officials and undermines the democratic process.

DiPeso said that the Minnesota chapter of his Republicans for Environmental Protection backs the measure. Despite the tight economy, he said that people recognize the value of supporting conservation initiatives.

"What we have seen is that in many parts of the country, even in 'red' parts, people are in support of taxes to support [such measures.] ... If you demonstrate to the people that they will get value by raising property and sales taxes, they will vote for them and they will vote for them in considerable margin," DiPeso said.

A wide coalition of cultural, social and environmental groups also supports the amendment, including the state League of Women Voters chapter, a local Sierra Club chapter and The Nature Conservancy. The editorial boards of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the St. Cloud Times and the Pioneer Press opposed the measure.

On Monday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that a recent poll of 933 likely voters found that the amendment was favored by 53 percent, with 41 percent opposed to it. A poll in early October found that 59 percent supported the initiative and 32 percent opposed it.

California: Proposition 7

Never short on controversial ballot initiatives, California is asking voters this year to vote on a proposition that would double the amount of energy electric utilities must derive from clean energy sources. The unusual twist is that many environmentalists are finding themselves in the position of fighting against the measure.

Proposition 7, or the Solar and Clean Energy Law, would require utilities, including government-owned utilities, to generate 50 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2025. The existing requirement raises the standard by 1 percent per year, with a goal of reaching 33 percent by 2020.

Advocates of the measure say it would help the state achieve its target cuts in global-warming emissions, create jobs and keep electricity rates affordable for consumers. The proposition is almost entirely financed by Arizona billionaire Peter Sperling, whose money comes from the for-profit University of Phoenix colleges, according to the Sacramento Bee. He and former San Francisco Supervisor Jim Gonzalez, a political consultant, have spent about $7.4 million on the campaign, the paper reported in early October.

Opponents maintain that the proposal is well-intentioned but poorly designed.

"Virtually the entire environmental movement opposes [it]," said Ralph Cavanaugh, a senior attorney with the Natural Resource Defense Council. "We're opposed to it because it would slow renewable energy development in California."

"People without a background in renewable energy hired folks. Assuming you see a 'no' vote on Proposition 7, that will be a victory for renewable energy."

California's three largest investor-owned utilities or their parent companies also oppose the initiative.

On Friday, The Associated Press reported that the latest Field Poll found that 39 percent of likely California voters support the proposition and 43 percent oppose.

California: Proposition 10

Known as the California Alternative Fuels Initiative, Proposition 10 is another proposal that is drawing the ire of state environmentalists.

Promoted heavily by oil and gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens to the tune of millions of dollars, the initiative provides $3.425 billion to help Californians purchase certain high-fuel economy or alternative-fuel vehicles, including natural-gas vehicles, and to fund research into alternative-fuel technology. It also provides $1.25 billion for research, development and production of renewable energy technology, as well as purchasing incentives.

Cavanaugh of the Natural Resource Defense Council argues that, similar to Proposition 7, this initiative is an "import" from outside the environmental community. Although he agrees with the focus of reducing oil dependence, he said that it inappropriately emphasizes natural-gas vehicles, when he and his coalition support a broader-based solution.

Many critics of the proposition have noted Pickens' financial interest in supporting natural gas vehicles.

In fighting to defeat the measure, the Natural Resource Defense Council is joined by the Consumer Federation of California, the League of Conservation Voters in California and the Sierra Club.

Supporters of the proposition include the mayors of Oakland, Irvine and Santa Ana, as well as other elected officials.