California Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, addresses a town-hall meeting in Tulare last week to explain his controversial vote to approve the state’s cap and trade program. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
When California Assemblyman Devon Mathis first ran for office in 2014, he told voters he was somebody who could reach across the aisle to Democrats to get things done in Sacramento.
But the Visalia Republican may have reached too for, as far as some of his constituents are concerned, because he was among seven Republican Assemblymembers — including minority leader Chad Mayes — and a single Republican senator who bucked the GOP line and voted last month to extend California’s cap-and-trade program to 2030.
The legislation, strongly supported by Gov. Jerry Brown, easily passed both the Democratically-controlled Assembly and Senate.
The program, which is unique to California, sets caps on the amount of greenhouse gasses that businesses — including utilities, refineries, steel manufacturers, food processors and cement makers — are allowed to emit, part of an effort to incentivize businesses to reduce such emissions to meet federally mandated clean-air standards.
The California Air Resources Board sets limits on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions the state’s largest emitters can produce every year, and that cap is reduced 3 percent annually. These industrial facilities are allocated some free emission allowances, usually about 90 percent of the cap, but in order to legally release more emissions — up to the to the cap — they must purchase credits.
Companies that exceed the cap face stiff fines from the state.
Some in the local business community see cap and trade as little more than a tax that elevates the cost of doing business and makes the state even less hospitable to business, a view shared widely among GOP lawmakers. But the measure did have local support from the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.
On the statewide level, the measure also had support from business groups including the California Chamber of Commerce and California Business Roundtable.
Mathis, Mayes and the other Republicans who voted to extend cap and trade have been deeply criticized, with some calling the group the “Crazy 8” or the “Hateful 8.”
So Mathis held a town hall meeting last week at the International Agri-Center in Tulare to explain why he voted as he did and to hear what voters in his district thought of his actions.
Mathis told the crowd that he is no supporter of cap and trade, but had he and his fellow Republican voted against the bill as other Republicans did, they wouldn’t have been “invited to the table” to hash out the details and make changes that made it less onerous.
“Why did I engage? To protect the Valley. If I wasn’t at the table, who would have been,” he asked, noting that regardless of his and the other Republican votes, the Democratic majority in both of the state’s legislative houses would have assured passage of the bill.
“What a lot of people don’t know was we were hard at work on this for three months,” said Mathis, adding that by being at the table, environmental groups couldn’t ride roughshod on developing the final bill, which ended up with some shifts to the right.
“We were able to kill their version of it and be able to have a conservative, market-based system, which is in line, again, with the California Republican Party’s platform on the environment.”
Among those changes was the elimination of California’s fire prevention fee leveled annually against nearly 800,000 owners of rural properties in the state.
And while money raised through cap and trade is the only steady source of income to pay for California’s high-speed rail system under construction, Mathis said the Republicans scored a victory because part of their deal to support the legislation was for Democrats to support Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1, which also was approved by both houses.
That legislation will put on the June 2018 ballot a measure that would give authorization for state legislators to change in 2024 how cap-and-trade funds can be spent, Mathis explained.
Voter approval ACA 1 could put the project in jeopardy because over the next seven years Democrats may lose their supermajorities in both houses and Republicans could have the numbers to cut or even eliminate the flow of money to the controversial project.
Mathis was joined on stage by seven people offering their support for his vote, many of them representing agriculture and other industries.
“To say this is anything but a turd sandwich would be correct,” Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, said of the cap-and-trade bill.
“We understand how hard this is for you. We understand how hard this was for the assemblyman. Our organization represents dairy families, which had a really hard time with this as well.”
But Raudabaugh said her organization supported the final bill because the alternative was to incur even higher costs if dairies and milk processing plants had to buy and install large amounts of new equipment to fully reduce carbon emissions to the state’s standards.
“Because we were trying to control the cost of our production, and it was really, really critical to [Tulare] county in particular, and in this area, that dairies are able to control their costs of production and keep employing people,” she said, adding that those added costs would total about $200 million for dairy operators alone.
Mathis said that without the ability to buy carbon credits, businesses across the state would spend about $20 billion more to meet clean-air standards, and about 200,000 jobs could be lost — 10,000 of them in Tulare County.
“Can you say you’re going to vote against 10,000 jobs? I’m not going to do that,” he added.
Dorothy Rothrock, president of the California Manufacturers and Technical Association, was also on the stage.
“Since 2013, we have been living under cap and trade, but it wasn’t the best program it could be,” she said. “Mathis and his colleagues made it better.”
But there were many in the audience who weren’t buying the explanation, with one man calling Mathis “pathetic” a few times and storming out of the room.
“I believe cap and trade, as we have seen it before, takes from the middle class, makes the poor poorer,” said Josh Fulfer, one of more than a dozen people who offered comments during the meeting, most of then critical of Mathis.
“If you don’t see the corruption there and stand with a spine and stand up for those who voted for you — your constituents — then all of this is worthless.”
“We all know that this was a bill that the governor was going to get passed one way or another. He needed the support from Republicans so the three Democrats who are in targeted seats next year could sit this one out,” and avoid backlash from voters in their districts, said Mariann Hedstrom, chair of the Tulare County Republican Party.
She went on to accuse Mathis of not representing the interests of the people who elected him, “And the fallout of this had been tremendous. I don’t know what they promised you, but I hope it’s worth it for our county and our Republican Party in this county, because I don’t think it is.”
After the nearly two-hour meeting, Mathis said, “I knew tonight was going to be a tough room. Every politician owes it to voters to have a town hall and be willing to face them and look them in the eye and explain to them, the best you can, what is and how it works, so they can have that.”