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Built to Last: Proposition 39 and California's Schools

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post Green Blog »

Lately the news has been full of articles urging the United States to invest in our future by bringing our aging infrastructure up to modern standards. As it washed away hundred-year-old concrete and brought down old power lines, Hurricane Sandy underscored the fact that our nation's very foundation is crumbling, and our ability to compete with other nations along with it. This Sunday's New York Times lead editorial gave one reason for this inaction, noting that “The need for investment in public works, never more urgent, has become a casualty of Washington's ideological wars.”

Luckily, California ain't Washington. On November 6, California voters cast a decisive vote in favor of investing in our state's infrastructure over the long term by voting 60-40 in favor of Proposition 39.

On its surface, Proposition 39 was a tax measure, leveling the playing field for California-based companies by closing a corporate tax loophole that had allowed out-of-state corporations to pull their facilities and workers out of the state, and they choose to pay taxes based on the presence of those same facilities and workers rather than on their (impressive) California sales. Proposition 39 returned the state to a “single sales factor” state, requiring all companies to pay taxes on their sales within the state.

But what one supportive San Diego blogger called “the most boring proposition on the 2012 ballot” does more than restore order to a broken tax system. It also provides the opportunity for our state to invest in two critical pieces of our state infrastructure: our energy system and our public schools.Solar array at Cesar Chavez Elemenatry School in San Francisco

In closing that corporate tax loophole, Proposition 39 returns over $1 billion to the state of California each year. And the proposition made clear that half these funds, $550 million per year for five years, must go toward energy efficiency and clean energy projects in the state's public buildings, primarily schools.

This week, The Center for the Next Generation released a white paper showing just how important these investments in schools will be for our students, workers, and communities. California's school system is the largest in the country, serving over 6.2 million students—one in eight of the nation's entire population of K-12 students. These students are housed in over 10,000 schools in which over 70 percent of school buildings are over 25 years old. One-third of classrooms in the state are held in portable or modular buildings, many of which are desperately in need of maintenance and energy retrofitting, and some of which are actually toxic because of the chemicals they contain.

Investing Proposition 39 funds into the massive infrastructure project that is the California public school system could save the state over $230 million in energy costs each year, which could then be used to keep teachers on staff and books and computers in the hands of our students. It could create over 11,000 jobs per year associated with the energy efficiency retrofit projects. And it could vastly improve the air quality and overall environment within school buildings, lowering student absentee rates due to asthma and other illnesses, and even improving student test scores.

Washington, take note: Proposition 39 proves that voters understand the critical need to invest in our nation's infrastructure. It also proves that clean energy is a political winner: in a poll of California voters by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates just after the election, 65 percent of “yes” voters on Proposition 39 revealed they had supported the measure because it would expand the use of clean energy and “improve the energy efficiency of buildings across California.”

The voters get it. The California legislature gets it: there are already several legislative proposals circulating in Sacramento with ideas on how to direct Proposition 39 funds in the most effective and efficient way possible toward our public schools and other public buildings. Other states get it, with infrastructure investment proposals cropping up across the country, many in response to concerns about new extreme weather events and their impact on roads, bridges, and the power grid. But ultimately it's up to our federal government to provide the high-level, comprehensive policies that can make programs like Proposition 39 a reality across the country.

Washington, take note: if our nation physically crumbles, our status as a world leader crumbles too. It's time to take action.

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