Programs that fund state parks, maintain wild open spaces, protect wild lands from forest fires, fund public transportation and more were all on the table in Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget.
Make no mistake, there is a lot for environmental advocates to hate about this proposed budget. But with a two-thirds majority in the state legislature required to pass new taxes and now (thanks to November's Prop 26) new fees, and with legislative Republicans refusing thus far to consider any new sources of revenue, Governor Brown must work with the hand he was dealt.
During his campaign for governor, Brown promised voters that he would put a halt to the gimmicks that served as short-term Band-Aids on budget shortfalls in the past. He promised a tough but fair budget that – in closing an estimated $25 billion budget shortfall – would spare few of the state’s programs and services. And he has mostly made good on that promise, with the most profound cuts in the areas where the state spends the most – health & social services and higher education. The total proposed spending cuts: a staggering $12.5 billion.
For now, Governor Brown’s budget spares the state’s K-12 public education system, preferring to allow voters to decide in a special election to agree to a five-year extension of $12 billion in taxes that will otherwise expire this year (including vehicle licensing fees, state sales taxes and state income taxes) or allow even deeper cuts to California’s programs and services, including to the K-12 system.
Here’s a summary of how environmental programs fared in the governor’s first budget proposal:
As expected, the Natural Resources Agency will share in the sacrifice being asked of all levels of state government. On the one hand, we’re relieved that the cuts proposed to the agency were fairly minimal (at least as a percentage of the overall budget cuts). On the other, the worst of the cuts are to the already-struggling state parks budget (which totaled $406 million last year). The $11 million proposed cuts this year and $22 million more in ongoing cuts will result in some parks closing and/or more restricted park hours for the public. As the California State Parks Foundation points out, budget reductions over the past few years have already left the parks system operating with 150 partial closures and service reductions.
We’re waiting for a more specific list of proposed closures and service reductions before making a complete assessment—according to a state finance department spokesman, Brown asked State Parks Director Ruth Coleman to submit by February a list of the parks that will have reduced hours or will be closed completely. Cuts this deep will magnify the budget reductions already sustained by the state parks in recent years and they are sobering, to say the least.
The Bay Delta Ecosystem Restoration Account was zeroed out in the budget. Questions remain about how to implement BDCP in light of this.
The proposal also zeroes out all $10 million in state funding for The California Land Conservation Act—commonly referred to as the Williamson Act. For decades, the Act has helped keep large parcels of land in California as open space by enabling local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use. The incentive: lower-than-normal property tax assessments (based on farming and open space uses versus full market value).
The revenue for some rural counties under the Act has been significant. Eliminating funding may force some landowners to allow their lands to be developed for housing or retail, contributing to sprawl and allowing more of California’s precious open space to disappear.
Surprisingly, transportation fared pretty well in this budget, with funding levels left unchanged from last year. According to the San Jose Mercury News: “transportation officials say Brown's plan would provide a stable source of funding for transit and highway planning across the state, and that could speed up work on some projects.”
Brown's budget proposes changing the way the state battles wildfires, reducing the number of firefighters to pre-2003 staffing levels and shifting a significant amount of fire-fighting responsibility to cities and counties. (This is just one of many areas where Brown proposes a wholesale restructuring of the relationship between state and local governments.) Some experts on wildfires have already reacted warily to the proposal.
The $71 million reduction ($12 million from the general fund) is one of the biggest cuts to the environment in the proposed budget. As with much of the above, we await details on these cuts.
Click here for the full budget summary.