BY JIM MILLER | The Press-Enterprise
The Inland region is in a strong position to tap into some of the $2.5 billion from last year’s Prop. 39 for energy-saving projects over the next five years, speakers testified Friday at a special Senate hearing in Riverside Adult School.
Utility bills pack a hit for school districts in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that have a lot of old buildings and the region has hot and cold extremes.
Also, many students in the two counties receive free and reduced-price lunches and the Inland area continues to struggle with high unemployment.
But how much money ends up coming to the Inland area depends on how lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration craft a formula to allocate the cash, which could pay for projects such as window glazing and more efficient air-conditioning compressors.
Friday, lawmakers, school officials and representatives of trades unions made the region’s case for the money, which is set to begin flowing this summer.
“As a teacher here in Riverside, I know how badly schools need the revenue from Prop. 39. You can’t get a whole lot of learning if students are sitting in a hot room on a sunny day,” Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, said. “I also know how badly we need the jobs.”
“The question is how the money will be distributed. Where will the money go?” said Medina, one of three Riverside-area lawmakers at Friday’s hearing at the Riverside Adult School board room. The others were Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, and state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside.
Approved by 61 percent of California voters last November, Prop. 39 ended a corporate tax benefit valued at about $1 billion annually.
About $550 million of the new revenue is being set aside for energy-efficiency and alternative energy projects at schools, colleges and other public facilities through June 2018.
Several proposals to distribute the money have emerged in Sacramento, and schools are a focal point. Districts that spend an estimated $700 million on energy, and energy-saving measures could reduce that bill by nearly a third.
But the agreement on how to allocate the money ends there, with influential players on all sides.
Brown’s January budget calls for allocating the money to school districts and community colleges on a per-pupil basis. Districts that have spent money on energy-saving measures in recent years have voiced support for per-pupil distribution.
The governor wants to count the energy-saving money toward schools’ constitutional funding guarantee – an idea panned by the Legislature’s legal and fiscal advisers.
Another proposal has come from state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, one of the leaders of the campaign to pass Prop. 39. Several Senate Democrats have signed onto the measure, including President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
De Leon wants to create a grant program that would direct the money toward school districts with above-average energy consumption, large shares of low-income students and above-average unemployment in the surrounding area, among other criteria.
De Leon’s office is still crafting an exact formula. But there are 26 school districts in Riverside County and 33 districts in San Bernardino County where 50 percent or more of the students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches, according to data from the governor’s office.
“Folks want jobs and they’re dubious about per capita distribution of the dollars, very dubious,” de Leon, who led Friday’s hearing, said afterward. He has compared Brown’s plan to “Solyndra on steroids,” a reference to the solar-panel company that failed after receiving millions in federal grants.
Other bills to allocate the Prop. 39 money have come from the Assembly, including legislation co-authored by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles.
Friday’s hearing was the last of several around the state led by de Leon. Other hearings have been in San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno and in Northern California.
A major challenge to distributing the energy-saving money to schools is that there is incomplete data about schools’ needs, speakers said Friday. Some districts have done their own studies but there is no date from the state’s counties.
Ted Rozzi, the Corona-Norco Unified School District’s assistant superintendent of facilities, said the state should fund projects that save energy while improving students’ learning environment.
Such projects include better lighting, modern heating and air conditioning systems, and window glazing. Switching school facilities to solar power would save money, too, but those projects would be much more expensive to build, he said.
Some speakers, meanwhile, suggested that some of the Prop. 39 money should go to non-school projects, such as improving city halls, libraries and senior centers.
“If we’re just going to wait for the schools,” the money may not be paid out fast enough, said Penny Newman, executive director of the Glen Avon-based Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.
Whatever approach emerges from Sacramento, Inland lawmakers said Friday that they will make sure that the formula is fair to the region.
“I think if we see those criteria, Riverside County would do pretty well,” Roth, a supporter of de Leon's bill, said.