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Demos propose using Prop. 39 funds for school energy projects
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Democratic lawmakers are proposing to spend about $500 million a year in newly approved tax revenue on energy efficiency projects at schools in California's poorest communities.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and Sen. Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles announced legislation Tuesday that they say will create jobs and help thousands of schools reduce their energy costs. They held a news conference at a 63-year-old Sacramento elementary school to highlight the need for ventilation and lighting improvements.

Democrats are relying on roughly $2.5 billion over five years in revenue from Proposition 39, which voters overwhelmingly approved last month. The initiative closes a corporate tax loophole and is expected to raise about $1 billion a year overall.

The other half of the money generated by Proposition 39 will go to the state's general fund, which pays for a variety of programs such as schools, health care and social services.

The funding is in addition to Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30, which is expected to bring in an additional $6 billion a year from increases in the state sales and income taxes.

De Leon said his bill, SB 39, best reflects the aim of the California Clean Energy Jobs Act because upgrading California schools would yield the greatest value for the public's investment.

He cited a 2011 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, which found that students perform better on tests when they have adequate heating and better lighting.

"We will save energy, reduce greenhouse gasses, save school districts money to put back into classroom and just as importantly, create much-needed jobs for Californians," de Leon said as he and the bill's supporters stood beneath a stage filled with dozens of sixth-graders from Mark Twain Elementary School.

California has about 10,000 public schools in nearly 60,000 school buildings to educate its roughly 6 million students. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a Democrat who said state lawmakers should place a new school bond on the 2014 ballot, said 70 percent of those school buildings are more than 25 years old, and a large portion of those are more than 50 years old.

Supporters say early estimates suggest the money could help as many as 5,000 schools.

Under SB 39, Democrats said the Los Angeles Unified School District could cut its energy bills by 25 percent and put an extra $28 million a year back into classrooms that have been affected by budget cuts in recent years.

The bill is being backed by billionaire investor and philanthropist Tom Steyer, who financed the Proposition 39 campaign. He said much of the money would go to improving heating and cooling systems, as well as upgrading lights in public schools.

"The number one cause of absenteeism in the public schools of California is asthma," Steyer said. "We will have a big positive health effect for the students as a result of the way this program is going to be implemented."

Other lawmakers have ideas of their own for the Clean Energy Job Creation Fund.

Assemblyman Das Williams of Santa Barbara introduced AB 29 to help colleges and universities with energy efficiency retrofits and clean energy projects.

And Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner of Berkeley introduced AB 39, which she said will complement de Leon's bill. The governor could also propose his own use for the money in his new budget next year.

Steinberg said the brilliance of SB 39 is that it focuses on how the state can get the most for its money. The bill would require the Office of Public School Construction to distribute the grants to school districts on a competitive basis for energy efficiency upgrades.

"Not only do we improve the climate and create jobs and invest in the new economy in California, but the savings that will go from reducing energy costs in schools will go right back to the classroom to hire more teachers," Steinberg said.