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If Proposition 23 passes, will other greenhouse-gas laws fall?

California's 2008 law to limit greenhouse-gas emissions is seen as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's biggest achievement. If it is undone by Proposition 23, other similar laws could follow, experts say.

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That has happened three times since 1980. The current unemployment rate is a record 11.7 percent.

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Within the state, the vote is considered a litmus test of Governor Schwarzenegger’s tenure. He was ushered in as “the people’s governor” by special recall election in 2003, and AB 32 is considered his biggest achievement to date. Now, a vote to suspend AB 32 could erase his legacy with an ironic twist, say analysts.

“The major question is, will the voice of the people who brought this man in through direct democracy be the same one that overrules his major policy triumph?” asks Thad Kousser, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego. “If California backs away from this global warming solutions act for economic reasons, will other states and countries back away from it as well?”

Support waning?

With three weeks to go until the vote, Prop. 23 appears to be losing support in the polls. The most recent California Field Poll shows 45 percent of voters oppose the proposition, 34 support it, and 21 percent are undecided. As of Oct. 15, opponents of Prop. 23 had raised more than twice as much money (a reported $19.6 million) as supporters.

“I think Prop. 23 supporters have thrown in the towel,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

He says that in the spring, when Valero and Tesoro circulated the petition to qualify Prop. 23 for the ballot in the spring, the oil compnies could not have anticipated two things: the Gulf oil spill and the defeat here of a Pacific Gas & Electric initiative in June that would have made it harder for local government to get into the electricity business.

PG&E spent nearly $50 million on the "Yes" side, and there was practically no money spent against it, whereas Prop. 23 has major opposition both financially and politically.

In the propaganda wars over the issue, each side is trying to couch the vote in different terms. Supporters call it California Jobs Initiative, and opponents call it the Dirty Energy Proposition.

Uncertain consequences

As is often the case in California initiatives, the devil is in the details, analysts say. Beyond the broad brush strokes of what Prop. 23 is intended to do, the fine print is unclear, they add.

Lost in all the politicking is “the real and important question of whether AB 32 makes economic sense for the state,” says John Matsusaka, president of the Referendum and Initiative Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Not enough is known about the the long-term costs of AB 32's requirements, he adds, “and whether we could be on the verge of doing significant economic damage to the state."

[Editor's note: The original photo caption for this story incorrectly referred to what the state passed in 2008.]