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Jul
2021
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California is restoring electric car rebates, but some environmentalists aren’t happy

SACRAMENTO — California is slated soon to reinstate funding for subsidies that encourage drivers to buy electric cars, a program advocates say will help the state prepare for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035.

But who exactly will get rebate checks has created a divide between some state legislators and environmental activists, who say more money should be directed to help low-income drivers go electric.

Under the budget legislators sent Newsom last week, the state will spend $525 million over three years on its main rebate program, which offers electric car buyers incentives of around $2,000 on new electric vehicles.

The governor is expected to sign off on the legislation, even though the subsidies end up going mostly to buyers with annual incomes above $100,000.

Newsom had previously proposed to eliminate the payouts and shift spending to programs encouraging low-income people to trade in older, heavily polluting cars. At the time, he said the move would show “it’s not just about expensive, fancy cars, and the rest of us are left behind.”

To the dismay of some advocates, he reversed course under pressure from legislators and lobbyists. “It shows that equity is still just a talking point,” said Román Partida-Lopéz, an attorney at the Greenlining Institute, which fights for racial justice in environmental policy.

Yet there are differing perspectives among progressives. Some disagreed with the governor’s plan to scrap the general EV subsidies — regardless of who the buyers are — because doing so could undermine California’s ambitious climate goals. Nearly two-thirds of electric car buyers in the state have received the rebates over the past decade.

The state’s new budget sets aside $400 million over the next three years for transportation equity projects, including for Clean Cars 4 All, a grant program that gives low-income buyers up to $9,500 to trade in their gas cars and buy new or used electric models.

State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, the Fremont Democrat who chairs the budget subcommittee on environmental protection, said the budget strikes a balance between equity efforts and incentives for the general public. He stressed the state has only 14 years to transform its auto sector to meet Newsom’s 2035 order — and only about 9% of vehicles sold statewide today are electric, including plug-in hybrids.

“We’ll never make it,” Wieckowski said. “It’s not the time to close down the shop. You’ve got to have incentives (for) everybody.”

The state’s general rebate program is its most popular: Money for the program ran out in April, a near-annual event since the state rebates began in 2010, and about 5,000 buyers are on the dreaded waiting list.

But much of that money has gone to the same type of buyer: successful men living in affluent pockets of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. According to an analysis by The Chronicle, those who got rebates in recent years are about 68% male, and nearly half are white. More than 70% had a household income above