While environmentalists get their panties in a twist over Prop. 23, a slicker plan to dodge environmental regulations is making its way past protesters.

By changing the definition of “fee” to “tax,” Prop. 26 would require a 2/3 majority of the California State Legislature to approve any fee on a company or taxpayer. It's being painted by opponents as a necessary obstacle in the way of greedy politicians who want to collect more “fees,” which they claim are just taxes in disguise.

The other camp, small yet angry, is being dramatic in its own right — jumping to the conclusion that the public will pick up these “fees” if politicians aren't able to make the real culprits pay up with a simple majority.

Realistically, the environmental protection and public-health funds that these fees funnel into — to offset the damage that harmful companies are doing to the public space — would probably just shrink, a UCLA study has found.

Per usual, the best way to tell what the initiative will really accomplish is by looking at its sugar daddies:

The single largest contribution to the 'Yes' on Prop. 26 campaign comes from Chevron, at $4 million, according to Oil International. The oil giant's support is especially sneaky because Chevron has publicly declined to support Prop. 23, as if it's too good-hearted to lift the cap on gas emissions. Meanwhile, it's fighting behind the curtain against government fines on corporation-caused damages like oil spills — the only real method of discipline that could lead to progress like the gas-emission reduction goals Governor Schwarzenegger set in 2006 (now being challenged by Prop. 23).

Still, the affected businesses would range beyond big oil. And for that, Prop. 26 has a confusing mush of backers.

Take Kaiser Permanente. The health-care conglomerate donated $50,000 to the 'Yes' on Prop. 26 campaign. At the same time, it released the following press release for 'No' on Prop. 23:

“California's clean energy law has health benefits, as well as environmental benefits” said Kathy Gerwig, Vice President Workplace Safety and Environmental Stewardship Officer for Kaiser Permanente. “The ballot measure would turn back the clock on laws that protect our public health.”

So why the backroom support for Prop. 26, the other public-health enemy? Any corporation as massive as Kaiser pays its fair share of fines for toxic-waste disposal and harmful chemical spills. Supporters also include Safeway, the American Beverage Association (at $3 million) and various automotive companies.

The UCLA study gives some examples of fines and subsequent benefactors who would potentially be affected by the initiative:

This year, the Legislature enacted AB 2398 and AB 1343, which would fund product stewardship programs to prevent bulky products and harmful chemicals from entering landfills. Proposition 26 would likely repeal these laws unless the Legislature reenacts them in compliance with Proposition 26's stringent 2/3 supermajority requirement.

To address the very serious problem of childhood lead poisoning in California, in 1991 the state enacted a fee imposed on manufacturers of products sold in California, such as lead paint, that contribute to lead poisoning in children. It used the fee to pay for community health programs, like lead screenings, that detect and treat children suffering from lead poisoning. The fee was challenged in court as an unlawful tax, but the California Supreme Court held that the fee was a valid regulatory fee, not a tax.

The only polls on Prop. 26 so far — released yesterday by Ben Tulchin — show the initiative at a narrow lead of 42 percent 'Yes' compared to 34 percent 'No,' with 25% of voters undecided.

If this one manages to sneak past the green heat, it'll be a more immediate and rewarding victory for big oil than Prop. 23 ever could have offered.

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