Resistance State: California in the Age of Trump
Between Sacramento and Washington D.C. sits the rest of the country, and a chasm. On immigration and taxes, guns and healthcare, cannabis and climate change, California is the federal government’s equal and opposite reaction. One year into President Trump’s first term, the push and pull continues—playing out under the Capitol dome, in the courts and on Twitter.
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The Trump administration today began a process to reconsider a plan that for the first time comprehensively designated where renewable energy development, recreation and conservation may take place across millions of acres in the California desert.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, codified in 2016, is an exhaustive inventory of public and private land sprawling across seven California counties.
The Interior Department said it took the action to comply with an executive order to maximize energy production on federal land. In the case of the Mojave Desert, that means fostering utility-scale solar and wind development.
The move is ostensibly about renewable energy production, but undoing the plan could also open up sensitive desert land to off-road recreation, mining and livestock grazing. The desert has been a battleground
Even though the agency cited California’s ambitious goals to ramp up renewable energy, state officials said that unraveling the plan was not necessary. The California Energy Commission, a state agency with a major role in developing the plan, said the state is on track to meet its renewable energy goals—and that taking the plan apart might have unintended consequences.
“A wholesale reopening of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is not going to benefit anyone,” said Karen Douglas, a member of the Energy Commission. “In the near term, it will reopen conflicts over renewable energy development, conservation, and other uses of the desert while creating a cloud of uncertainty over the California desert.”
The decision to revisit the plan and open up a 45-day comment period sparked frustration among the very groups that had spent eight years crafting the compromise.
Alex Daue, assistant director for energy and climate at The Wilderness Society, said the move “is a cynical attempt by the Trump administration to undermine both renewable energy and conservation. Reopening the carefully crafted, balanced plan will only result in uncertainty, conflict and worse outcomes for renewable energy, recreation and conservation.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, long a champion of the California desert, said she questioned “the logic of reopening this carefully crafted compromise that was so recently settled. Scrapping the plan now is a complete waste of time and money, and I oppose this.”
The agreement parsed the Mojave into categories according to use: nearly 4 million acres were set aside for permanent protection, an additional 1.4 million were identified for “critical environmental concern” and some 388,00 acres —7 percent of the available land—were given over to renewable energy development.
In a statement released by the federal Bureau of Land Management, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Katharine MacGregor said: “We need to reduce burdens on all domestic energy development, including solar, wind and other renewables.”
Critics call that a mixed message. Last week the Trump administration dealt a blow to the solar industry by imposing stiff tariffs on imported solar panels and cells, which are used in the bulk of installations in the United States. And the Interior Department’s current budget proposal calls for cutting half of the federal bureau’s renewable energy budget, and nearly 72 percent of the funding for the department’s clean energy research.
The desert plan took nearly a decade to hammer out and brought a host of bickering parties to the negotiating table: local, state and federal land managers, desert biologists and archeologists, environmental groups, mining interests, solar and wind firms, recreation and off-road enthusiasts, Native American tribes and the military. Never before had county planners, state bureaucrats, federal land managers and Army officers coordinated their land-use efforts, taking into consideration endangered species, the needs of industry and the rights of those who flock to the vast desert for recreation.
What emerged was an unusual agreement, nearly as complicated as its name. The full plan covers more than 22 million acres in the California desert, but only about half of that, representing federal lands, is being reconsidered.
Guided by the land-use maxim of finding the “highest and best use” of each acre, the plan was designed to find a place for all activities, energy production, recreation and conservation.
Energy developers were drawn to the the agreement because it directed them to areas where there would be fewer conflicts and smoother, faster environmental reviews. But some warn that the certainty the current plan provides may be lost by the Trump administration’s move.
“It could put the brakes on responsible development in the desert and sends the wrong signal to developers,” said Laura Crane, director of the California Lands Network Program at the Nature Conservancy.
The California Wind Energy Association, however, this week released a map indicating that wind developers were shut out of prime areas under the adopted plan, which afforded more room for solar farms.
An Orange County Superior Court judge has ruled that California’s “sanctuary state law” conflicts with Huntington Beach’s rights as a charter city, throwing some protections for undocumented immigrants into question in 120 cities throughout the state.
Senate Bill 54 or the California Values Act, authored by state Sen. Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat who is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, doesn’t actually make California a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. Rather, it puts limits on the amount of work state and local government officials can do to expedite ICE enforcement.
Though many California cities support the law, arguing it makes immigrant communities less afraid to report crimes and promotes trust in local institutions, dozens of other municipalities have adopted resolutions opposing it in principle. Huntington Beach, in coastal Orange County, was the first to take its challenge to court.
Judge James Crandall did not issue a legal opinion about the case, but granted a writ of mandate, ruling that the state cannot enforce its sanctuary law there, based on Huntington Beach’s status as a charter city.
Charter cities are organized under their own municipal codes, rather than under the state’s general law. One hundred twenty-one of California’s 482 cities share the designation, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose, San Diego and San Francisco.
Lawyers for Huntington Beach argued that the state sanctuary law intruded on the city’s local control.
“Huntington Beach is saying, ‘If we want to volunteer to go above and beyond to help immigration officials, we should be able to do that.’ Under SB 54 they can’t,” said immigration law expert Jean Reisz at University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law.
It’s unclear how the judge’s decision will affect other charter cities, or whether it will inspire more legal opposition.
“It certainly could apply to all of them, but this is an injunction to keep the state from enforcing this law against Huntington Beach, not all charter cities,” Reisz said.
The state Attorney General’s office is expected to appeal.
“Preserving the safety and constitutional rights of all our people is a statewide imperative which cannot be undermined by contrary local rules,” state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in an email. “We will continue working to ensure that our values and laws like the California Values Act are upheld throughout our state.”
The ruling is separate from the federal lawsuit challenge filed last year by the Department of Justice to the sanctuary laws, which are actually made up of three pieces of legislation. A U.S. District Judge struck down one of the three, pertaining to business owners’ interactions with immigration authorities, but upheld the other two, including SB 54.
A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Education’s delay of rules meant to protect student loan borrowers from predatory practices was “arbitrary and capricious,” granting a legal victory to the state of California and borrowers who say their colleges defrauded them.
If upheld, the ruling could make it easier for students like the tens of thousands of Californians left in the lurch when for-profit chain Corinthian Colleges abruptly closed its doors to recoup their investments.
Corinthian’s 2015 collapse prompted the Obama Administration to issue new rules the following year allowing groups of students to apply for federal loan forgiveness en masse if their college closed, misled them or broke the law. The so-called “borrower defense rules” were hailed by consumer advocates and criticized by representatives of the for-profit college industry, who said they would put small vocational schools out of business.
The Trump administration has repeatedly pushed back implementation of the rules, and in August proposed a new plan that would make each individual borrower prove that their college knowingly lied to them in order to have loans discharged.
But Judge Randolph S. Moss agreed with the complaint filed by a pair of student borrowers, joined by the attorney generals of 19 states including California, that the department illegally “failed to offer a reasoned basis” for the shift in policy. The two sides are scheduled to meet in court Friday to discuss remedies in the case.
“This is a big win for students in California and the nation who were cheated of a quality education,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has filed multiple lawsuits on behalf of student loan borrowers.
The Department of Education did not reply to requests for comment late today.
Track all of California’s lawsuits against the Trump administration here.
California’s push to pass the nation’s strongest net neutrality protections—and bring back Obama-era rules undone by the Trump administration—advanced today, one step in a high-stakes tech battle that’s being waged from here to Washington.
The bill by Democratic Sens. Scott Wiener and Kevin de Léon survived intense negotiations to pass the Democratic-controlled Assembly with overwhelming support by a vote of 61 to 18. It goes back to the Senate for a final vote before the legislative session ends Friday. If passed, it would prohibit internet service providers from slowing or speeding content based on preference or extra payment.
“The core premise of net neutrality is that we get to decide where we go on the internet, as opposed to telecom and cable companies telling us where to go,” Wiener said in a statement.
SB 822 aims to protect an open internet by replacing the Trump administration’s repeal of federal protections established during the Obama administration in 2015. It is considered the strongest set of net neutrality provisions since Obama’s were rolled back in June, and would be enforced by California’s attorney general.
Wiener and de Léon’s proposal would ban internet companies from charging businesses access fees in order to reach its online customers. It would also prohibit “zero rating,” a practice in which providers charge consumers for accessing their competitors’ content, but provide a free data incentive for accessing their own content.
Republican opponents of the bill slammed it as an overreach that meddles with a free market, creates a regulatory patchwork and invites litigation. Advocates, meanwhile, argued that such protections prevent internet service providers, such as AT&T and Comcast, from throttling internet speeds and creating so-called “fast lane” access.
Net neutrality proponents include not just technology companies such as Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Facebook, but also the Writers Guild of America and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The bill garnered national attention as it moved through the Legislature earlier this year. Facing strong opposition from internet companies and Republican legislators, Democrats anticipated a legal challenge as the state measure advanced.
In committee, the bill was heavily amended by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat. In response, Wiener almost withdrew his “hijacked” bill, which he said had been stripped of all its key protections.
But in July, the bill’s original provisions were restored and lawmakers reached an agreement to advance it together. Santiago eventually came around and joined as principal coauthor.
“This bill is about value,” Santiago said. “The question before us is, do you believe in a free and open internet?”
On the floor, Republican leaders charged regulation should be left to the feds. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican, said the issue will go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the state will lose. Other opponents argued it will chill the tech industry and result in a less robust market for consumers.
“The worst possible thing we can do is to create 50 different state FCCs,” Patterson argued. “If you are really interested, the place to have this fleshed out is the federal level with federal elections and accountability. It takes several steps way too far.”
“You’re wading into an area where you have no business in,” echoed Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Lake Elsinore Republican. “This is embarrassing.”
Lobbying was intense as Thursday’s vote neared. A group affiliated to AT&T was reportedly using robocalls to send out automated messages claiming the law would raise consumer cell phone bills. Earlier this month, Verizon was widely criticized for allegedly throttling data speeds for the Santa Clara County Fire Department during the Mendocino Complex fire, a complaint the company denied.
Ryan Singel, media and strategy fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society, says public pressure clearly helped secure Assembly approval.
“While it seems like getting net neutrality passed in California should be simple, the reality is that AT&T is incredibly powerful in California’s legislature—which was made clear when the bill was gutted in committee in June,” Singel said in an email.
In recent months, more than 20 states have introduced bills aiming to restore the federal net neutrality protections. Washington and Oregon have already passed legislation.
Meanwhile, the fight on the federal front is far from over. Tech groups including Amazon, Facebook and the Internet Association this month filed briefs with the federal appeals court supporting a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission to bring back net neutrality.