Newsom wants it both ways on climate change and housing crisis

Top priorities often conflict. Enjoy a vacation or advance at work? Save money for retirement or your kids’ college education?

It’s hard sometimes to have it both ways. The same goes with a governor when his policies compete.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is caught between two top priorities, although he doesn’t acknowledge it. He’s trying to be a global leader on climate change. But he has also promised to build more housing. He has elegantly articulated the need for both saving the planet and providing affordable places for Californians to live.

But some stuff he’s proposing to combat global warming would make it even tougher to build new housing in high-cost California.

He has placed these competing agenda items in the Legislature’s lap during the final days of its two-year session.

Newsom is pushing hard behind the scenes for a package of ambitious proposals that would accelerate the state’s climate and energy goals.

Many lawmakers are privately perturbed that he waited until the last minute of the session, which ends Aug. 31. They justifiably complain that there isn’t adequate time to study the proposals’ impacts, including on housing.

His ideas have also lacked details. As of Friday, they still weren’t in bill form and didn’t have legislative authors.

“We’re taking all of these major actions now in the most aggressive push on climate this state has ever seen because later is too late,” Newsom said in announcing his proposals Aug. 12.

True, the actions would be major, even groundbreaking. But the governor hyperbolizes in claiming they’d be the state’s “most aggressive push” ever on climate. I’d award that distinction to the landmark 2006 legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that launched California’s nation-leading attack on global warming.

Of late, Newsom has been blazing his own trail toward more national prominence, moving into better position — intentionally or not — to run for president if the opportunity arrives.

“He’s trying to rush everything through [the Legislature] and then he’s going to take it and go national. That’s what this is about,” asserts California Business Roundtable President Rob Lapsley, a veteran of Capitol politics.

One thing Newsom wants to do is codify into law the state’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2045. That would make it legally binding. Now it’s essentially a guideline in an executive order signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Newsom also wants to adopt a more aggressive limit on greenhouse gas emissions. The current goal is 40% below the 1990 level by 2030. His legislation would move that target to 55%.

And to ensure that 100% of California’s electricity is noncarbon by 2045 — a current goal — he wants to set interim targets of 90% by 2035 and 95% by 2040.

Those actions would affect housing development in at least two ways:

First, it would jack up building costs with requirements that dwellings include such climate-fighting tools as rooftop solar, heat pumps and storage batteries.

Dan Dunmoyer, who heads the California Building Industry Association, estimates a “very conservative minimum” additional cost per house of $50,000.

Second, it would provide a project’s opponents with more solid legal ground to file lawsuits under the oft-abused California Environmental Quality Act.

CEQA has hindered home building for many years, and it could be an even more deadly weapon for anti-housing factions if some Newsom proposals become law.

Only 13% of CEQA lawsuits in 2020 were filed by genuine environmental groups, according to a study released last week by the California Business Roundtable.

The Newsom administration says California needs to build 2.5 million homes over the next eight years — 312,500 units per year. But over the last decade, we’ve averaged only about 100,000 annually, one-third of what’s needed.

Yes, we also must lead on global warming.

It’s a conflict of monumental priorities that probably can’t be wisely resolved in a few days.

George Skelton is a Los Angeles Times columnist.

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