Parks and politics: What you need to know about Propositions 68 and 70

What to make of the propositions on California’s June 5 ballot? As ever, the issues span the political spectrum. But two address the environment, one asking voters to shell out billions to improve it and another that could make it more difficult for the state to spend billions on helpful projects.

 Taken together, these measures would provide money to shore up crumbling levees, give kids more places to play and help clean the air—albeit at a price—and affect how the state spends proceeds of the cap-and-trade system that California uses to reduce greenhouse gases.

Let’s unpack.

Proposition 68 would grant state officials permission to borrow $4.1 billion for water infrastructure projects, wildlife habitat restoration and new parks in low-income neighborhoods.

This is the measure you can’t really say you are against, for fear of being labeled a Scrooge. Is it possible to be against water, wildlife and parks? Might as well call this the “We Love Puppies and Babies” measure. Just remember that some puppies—and babies, for that matter—may bite.

The sting comes when the bill is due. California voters have OK’d bond measures for water and parks projects many times, approving the borrowing of nearly $16 billion since 2002. They’ve made it clear they stand behind such projects.

How is Prop. 68 any different? It’s not. The borrowed money must be paid back, with interest. That is estimated to cost more than $200 million a year. For decades.

Look at who opposes it: the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which rarely approves of expenditures that come out of taxpayers’ pockets. But neither the organization nor any other opponent of the proposition has spent a penny to stop it.

Supporters, on the other hand, have shelled out more than $9 million to sing the measure’s praises. The state’s water infrastructure is in bad shape. The bond apportions $1.27 billion for levees and flood protection and another $1.5 billion to shore up rivers and coastal areas to withstand the effect of climate change and rising seas. Funding would also be set aside for wastewater recycling.

Some of that money would be spent to improve wildlife habitat, which has compounding benefits: Restored waterways and wild lands for animals capture precious water more efficiently and store it more effectively.

One thing in worse shape than water infrastructure in California is the state park system, which has a backlog of repairs projected to cost more than $1 billion. The state parks would get much of the $1.3 billion in bond money set aside for parks, but a healthy slice would go to create recreation areas in communities where open space is scarce.

Again, there’s further benefit. It helps to think of parks as vital components of public health. Green spaces, no matter how minuscule, encourage residents to exercise.

And underserved areas are the same places where clusters of childhood diabetes and respiratory ailments are found. Researchers have linked access to recreation with improved health.

Finally, the “greening” that comes with new parklands can mean more trees, which not only provide cooling shade but also draw carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere. Porous, non-paved surfaces like playing fields channel rainwater to recharge aquifers.

Another, far larger bond measure appears headed for the November ballot, dedicated mostly to groundwater management.

A conceptual illustration of California’s bullet train. Image by NC3D via Flickr

Right now, let’s talk about Proposition 70.

It says that in 2024, the state Legislature must have a two-thirds majority vote to pull money from California’s deepest pockets—the kitty holding the proceeds from the state’s cap and trade auctions. The funds—more than $5 billion since the program’s inception—would be placed in a special reserve, to be released only with that supermajority vote.

The proposal, placed on the ballot by the Legislature, is a purely political product. It was part of last summer’s deal to keep California’s cap-and-trade system going—a requirement to gain the support of Chad Mayes, then the leader of the Assembly’s Republicans (he lost his post because of his support).

The idea is that raising the vote threshold would give the Legislature’s minority Republicans more say in which projects get hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

The way it works now is that simple majority votes determine how the money is spent. It mainly goes to projects that reduce carbon emissions or help low-income communities with housing, transportation, sustainability and recreation projects, for example.

There is constant debate in the Legislature about how elastic the definition of “emissions reduction” has become. Here’s where the politics comes in.

About a quarter of the auction proceeds go to one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s pet projects, the high-speed rail system slated to link Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The project has flagging support in the Capitol, even among Democrats. A stricter voting standard might kill further funding for the mega-project. Opponents see the proposition as a chance to stop the bullet train once and for all.

It could also make it hard for lawmakers to come to agreement on how to spend the money, leaving funds untapped and drying up resources for bipartisan projects.

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