California voters last year passed Proposition 39, which changed the way multistate corporations are taxed, creating a big pot of money - about a billion dollars a year - with half required to be spent on energy-saving projects in schools, colleges and other public buildings.
Seven months later, the Capitol's politicians are still wrangling over how to divvy up the more than $400 million going to schools. It's one of the stickiest of several high-dollar issues still in limbo with scarcely a week remaining before the June 15 constitutional deadline to pass a budget.
Just before the Legislature's budget conference committee recessed indefinitely late Wednesday, Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, a co-sponsor of Proposition 39, engaged in a pointed exchange with Gov. Jerry Brown's budget point man, Michael Cohen, over Brown's plan to distribute the school money widely, based on attendance, with every school in the state getting at least a token amount.
That runs counter to plans by de León and other Democratic legislators to concentrate the money on fewer schools with, they say, the largest potential to achieve greater energy savings and create jobs in low-income areas.
"We cannot blow this opportunity," de León told Cohen, saying that voters would react negatively if the money is frittered away. The senator has broad legislative support for his approach, and also boasts of backing from billionaire Tom Steyer, who with de León sponsored Proposition 39 and financed the campaign for it.
De León's criticism, although sharp, was muted in comparison to his past denunciations of Brown's plan, once calling it "Solyndra on steroids," referring to the crash of the federally subsidized solar energy firm. Cohen, however, continued to defend Brown's plan, saying it would be fair and easily administered and that the grants, as low as $15,000 for small schools, could make a significant difference in energy savings.
The Legislature's budget analyst, Mac Taylor, has weighed in on the conflict with a compromise proposal that would allocate the funds regionally, rather than among individual schools, and require districts to apply for the funds.
"This approach helps ensure energy benefits are maximized," the analyst's proposal says, "while also distributing funding broadly across the state."
Neither side accepted the compromise, however, and the issue, like several others, will be on the agenda for private meetings between Brown and legislative leaders over the next few days.
It could be a taste of what's to come in Brown's relationship with the Senate. De León is the apparent front-runner to succeed President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg sometime next year and could hold the Senate's top job for all of Brown's second term.
PHOTO: First-grade teacher Carolyn Goehring, center, helps students during a math lesson at Raymond Case Elementary School in Elk Grove on April 18, 2013. Randy Pench/Sacramento Bee