Environmental groups and their supporters hoping for a new wave of green laws from the Legislature this year ended up with barely a ripple.
From a statewide effort to ban plastic bags, to limits on foam food packaging, most of the top environmental bills of the 2012 session died.
Environmental groups did score a few wins. They beat back an effort by industry to rewrite the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, the landmark law that requires environmental studies of major projects. And lawmakers passed a bill over the furious objections of hunters to ban the use of dogs in bear and bobcat hunting.
But for the most part environmentalists came away disappointed when the Legislature adjourned for the year early Saturday morning.
"We had some modest success. But I felt like we were playing defense more than offense," said Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Considering that Democrats control both the Senate and Assembly, polls show the public generally supports tough environmental standards, and Gov. Jerry Brown has spent 40 years as an advocate for renewable energy and conservation rules, what happened?
Three things, experts say: the bad economy, the huge state budget deficit and newly drawn political districts.
Whenever a bill came up that could cost businesses money, members of both parties heard the word "jobs" loud and clear. A key example was the bill to ban polystyrene packaging, commonly known by the trade name Styrofoam, in many restaurant and grocery store uses. The bill, SB568, by Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, mirrored bans already imposed by roughly 50 cities statewide, and practiced by a wide variety of businesses, from McDonald's to Jamba Juice, because of litter concerns.
But companies that make the packaging in California came out in force. Of the 54 Democrats in the Assembly, 31 either voted no or didn't vote when the bill came up for a key vote Friday night. With all Republican members voting against it, the bill died.
A similar fate met AB298, a bill that would have banned plastic bags statewide at grocery and convenience stores. The plastics industry pushed back and argued that the bill would kill jobs. It died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Although liberal Democratic lawmakers from Northern California supported the bills, moderate Democrats from Southern California and the Central Valley did not. One reason, said Dan Jacobson, legislative director of Environment California, a nonprofit group, is that many are facing re-election in rejiggered districts, so they didn't want to make waves or have industry groups donate money to their opponents.
"You didn't see a lot of powerful bills come through on the environment -- or many other issues -- this year because the members didn't want to vote on controversial bills," Jacobson said.
A longtime Capitol veteran agreed.
"When people are running for higher office or running for re-election in a new district, that makes them all the more anxious and a little less likely to want to get crosswise with powerful interest groups," said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. "That's unfortunate, but true."
When unemployment is high, the issue of jobs resonates, said Marc Burgat, vice president of governmental relations for the California Chamber of Commerce.
"Often times the environmental community can be siloed and look at their one issue in particular and not look at the broader picture," he said. "I think the business community's concerns about the economy and the business climate are being heard."
Environmental groups argued that banning plastic bags would create jobs for other companies that made different types of bags, or that banning polystyrene foam would create jobs for makers of cardboard or cornstarch containers. But they failed to persuade lawmakers.
In the end, however, green groups did win some battles. Among the bills that made it to Brown's desk, where he has 30 days to sign, veto or let them become law without his signature:
Other bills that failed included SB1189 from Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, which would have required mattress manufacturers to set up programs to take back for free old mattresses when they sell consumers new ones; AB1990, the "Solar For All" bill, by Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Mountain View, which would have required utilities to purchase renewable energy generated in low-income communities; and SB1455 by Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, which would have extended the Carl Moyer program, a state program that funds efforts to reduce air pollution by offering grants to business to replace old diesel truck, bus and other engines.
Despite the losses, "We did OK," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. "Nobody anticipated that there would be big earth-shattering new environmental legislation starting the year. The fact that we came up with some good things is encouraging."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN