In a landmark case before the Third District Court of Appeal, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) recently argued for creation of an unprecedented tax doctrine that could raise billions of dollars in new revenues. The ARB described the new revenue not as a tax or a fee (or any other recognized revenue-raising mechanism), but as a “byproduct” of a regulatory program.
The case, California Chamber of Commerce v. California Air Resources Board, challenges the legality of the cap-and-trade auction ARB set up as part of its program to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to meet goals outlined in AB 32, the climate change law.
CalChamber is arguing that (1) the ARB exceeded the authority the law granted it by reserving GHG allowances to itself and auctioning those allowances to GHG emitters to raise revenues, and (2) such an auction is a “tax” requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, which was not obtained.
(CalChamber is not challenging AB 32 or the cap-and-trade mechanism itself, because the goals of AB 32 can be achieved effectively using cap and trade. In fact, the efficacy of cap and trade to meet the GHG reduction goals would be unaffected in the absence of the auction.)
The lawsuit aims to prevent the powerful regulatory agency from expanding its reach beyond the boundaries set by the Legislature, and to maintain the integrity of the revenue-raising rules of Proposition 13. But the ARB has raised the stakes even higher by suggesting that the revenues raised by the auction are neither taxes nor fees.
The auctions so far have raised nearly $1.6 billion in revenues that have been deposited into state coffers. The Legislative Analyst has estimated the auction will raise tens of billions more dollars by 2020.
The ARB instead claims that the auction is a legitimate exercise of its regulatory powers and that the billions in new revenues are “incidental” to that regulation. In fact, the ARB flatly states that the auction was not enacted for the purpose of increasing revenues; therefore, it is not a tax.