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Dan Walters, CALmatters Commentary

Dan Walters writes for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

Remember the children’s fable about the wolf who was attempting to capture and consume the three little pigs?

If a pig refused to admit him or come out of its house, the wolf threatened: “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s declaration that the state will stop buying vehicles from automakers that oppose its mileage and tailpipe emission rules is just such huffing and puffing.

While several car companies agreed to California’s demands, others refused and continued to support the Trump administration efforts to weaken Obama-era mileage and emissions standards.

The ban on purchases from the recalcitrant firms — General Motors and Toyota, most prominently — is part of a broader decree that the state will stop buying gasoline-powered sedans altogether, except for those used by emergency service agencies such as the Highway Patrol.

Police unions have been especially aggressive in erecting barriers to disciplinary oversight, including a “peace officers bill of rights.” Politicians, from the governor down, have been eager to do their bidding because their campaign endorsements are precious political commodities.

“The state is finally making the smart move away from internal combustion engine sedans,” Newsom said in a statement to CalMatters. “Carmakers that have chosen to be on the wrong side of history will be on the losing end of California’s buying power,” Newsom added.

California’s buying power? It’s pretty puny, when one looks at the numbers.

Californians, including governmental agencies, are on track to buy 1.9 million new light vehicles this year, according to the California New Car Dealers Association. About 800,000 will be passenger vehicles, sedans mostly, and the remainder pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.

If Sacramento legislators take a dislike to something or someone, they ban it. If they like something, they impose it on everyone and/or give it taxpayers’ money.

The state purchased 2,672 passenger vehicles in 2018, with Chevrolets from General Motors about 1,000 of those. Those cars amounted to $27 million in sales, not even a flea bite for a corporation that makes and sells about 3 million vehicles a year worldwide.

The state’s purchases from other holdout companies, such as Fiat Chrysler and Toyota, are minuscule.

“In court, and in the marketplace, California is standing up to those who put short-term profits ahead of our health and our future,” Newsom puffed. But in reality, it’s nothing more than a symbolic gesture, on a par with Jerry Brown’s infamous ban on providing plastic briefcases to state bureaucrats when he became governor in 1975.

As trivial as it might be, however, Newsom’s attempt to blacklist General Motors, et al, carries a deeper implication. It’s using governmental power to punish or coerce companies for taking political positions that don’t happen to square with the governor’s.

Reasonable people can disagree on what the precise emissions and mileage standards for automobiles should be. GM and other holdouts contend that the rules they reluctantly agreed to follow during the Obama administration are unworkable, and they are seeking a relatively small change.

This is all about political positioning, rather than the issue itself.

Trump takes every opportunity to ding California, particularly by portraying the state as an example of left-wing mismanagement that Democrats would impose on the rest of the nation, with emissions rules one example.

Newsom, meanwhile, fancies himself a national leader of the “resistance” and wants to advance that image by any available means. The state has filed more than 60 lawsuits against the Trump administration.

Ironically, however, Newsom’s punishing of GM and the other firms for disagreeing with him on emission rules, however weakly, is fundamentally no different from what Democratic members of Congress accuse Trump of doing in their impeachment drive — using one’s official position for rankly political purposes.

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CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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