Thursday, February 12, 2009

How Does The Budget Framework Impact Environmental Protections?

The budget agreement reached by legislative leaders and the governor includes $15.8 billion in spending cuts, $14.3 billion in new taxes (including a 12 cent increase in the gas tax, 1% increase in sales tax, and .5% increase vehicle license fee, amongst others), and $10.9 billion in borrowing. Assuming that the proposal passes the Senate and Assembly this weekend – and passage is still in doubt -- portions of the deal will need to go to the voters for approval, likely on a special election later this year.

Given these serious funding cuts, and the myriad demands by Republican legislators to suspend or delay environmental protections, how did the environment fare in the final deal?

Smoke from diesel off-road vehicles is a major source of pollution, and delaying these new protections prevents us from cleaning up this serious threat to public health.

The biggest financial hit is to transit funding. The proposal suspends all state support for local transit for the remainder of 2009, as well as next year. The program remains, but has been totally de-funded. This brings the transit funding cuts from the last two budgets to about $3 billion.

Department of Fish and Game takes a $30 million dollar hit as a “loan” to the general fund. This could have the effect of jeopardizing an additional $30 million in federal matching funds.

Exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act, and truncated permit review, for eight road building projects. Although the worst of the proposed road building exemptions were eliminated, several smaller projects were included in the final deal.

The California Conservation Corp, a very popular and successful program that had been proposed for elimination, was saved.

The Williamson Act for preservation of agricultural land was restored.

Perhaps just as notable as what is included in the budget is how many of the Republican demands did not end up in the budget, including:

-Hobbling the Air Resources Board with red tape;
-Preventing the use of CEQA to address greenhouse gas pollution;
-Weakening protections from pesticides; and
-Far more sweeping exemptions for road construction projects.

While this was a terrible way to develop a budget – by 5 people in total secrecy – there is one other upside. The proposed budget framework would cover the remainder of this year as well as next fiscal year (2009-10). So we will not have a repeat of this hostage-taking scenario later this summer.

Although there is a lot not to like about this budget deal, and much of the next few years will need to focus on undoing some of the damage, we appreciate Senator Steinberg and Speaker Bass’ extraordinary efforts to minimize the damage, given an untenable situation.

Reform of the budget process – especially the elimination of the 2/3 requirement for passing budgets and taxes -- is desperately needed to prevent this kind of fiscal blackmail from happening again.

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