Sacramento finally has a good problem: how to spend $2.5 billion in new revenue earmarked for energy-efficiency projects by Proposition 39, which passed with 60 percent of the vote in November.

Gov. Jerry Brown made a pitch in his January budget proposal, and a few other lawmakers have introduced bills with their ideas. No one, though, has a better proposal than Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, and businessman and environmentalist Tom Steyer. The two men co-chaired the campaign for Proposition 39, which fixed a loophole that gave out-of-state businesses a tax break. The proposition is expected to generate about $1 billion in tax revenue a year, half of which will go to energy projects for the next five years.

Schools chief Tom Torlakson, right, with Proposition 39 co-chairs Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles,left, and billionaire financier Tom Steyer, before a
Schools chief Tom Torlakson, right, with Proposition 39 co-chairs Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles,left, and billionaire financier Tom Steyer, before a news conference to unveil a proposed bill to fund energy efficiency projects at schools in California's poorest communities, at Mark Twain Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. The bill, authored by de Leon and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would use money from last month's voter approved initiative, Proposition 39, that requires $500 million for five years be used for clean air project. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

De León's SB 39, sponsored with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would direct the money to one cause: making K-12 school buildings in California -- 70 percent of which are more than 25 years old -- more energy-efficient. The benefits are manifold.

California spends about $700 million a year on energy for public schools, according to calculations from the California Energy Commission. The EPA estimates the average school retrofit reduces energy costs by 30 percent -- the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars that could be plowed back into education budgets.

There isn't enough money to retrofit every school that needs it, so De León's bill would prioritize schools that serve low-income families. He estimates roughly half the state's 10,000 schools could be covered.


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Brown's budget would spread the money among all districts and community colleges -- an inefficient approach. Some districts have already done this kind of work, or can more easily turn to voters to approve bond measures for it. The funds should be targeted where they're needed most.

The economic and health benefits are immense. Energy retrofits -- modernizing heating, cooling and ventilation systems, electrical work, plumbing upgrades and new windows -- could create up to 66,000 jobs in the industry hardest hit by the recession.

Saving energy helps keep the air clean. And better ventilation -- which in studies has been shown to improve student performance -- can reduce respiratory illnesses, which reduces student absences.

De León and Steyer want the Office of Public School Construction and the Department of Education to manage the program, which makes sense; they know the terrain best. This project must be run well. Taxpayers will be furious, for example, if schools that are retrofitted are later found to be so outdated in other ways that they must be demolished.

Taxpayers should be thrilled with this program if it goes according to this plan. Schools will have more money for pressing educational needs. Kids will breathe cleaner air. And communities will benefit from the addition of 66,000 jobs.

The Legislature should make approval of SB 39 a top priority and it should do so with uncharacteristic haste.