In summary

Lawmakers approved policies and funding that address environmental injustices, protect natural resources and build climate change resilience.

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By Pablo Garza, Special to CalMatters

Pablo Garza is California political director for the Ecosystems Program at Environmental Defense Fund,

As if a global pandemic was not enough, the tumultuous legislative session comes to a close as much of the state is on fire. Understandably, lawmakers had already significantly pared down their legislative packages to focus on a response to COVID-19.  And, then last week many important bills on environmental justice and natural resources stalled. 

More on two important pieces of unfinished business later. Despite the disappointment related to bills that will not make it across the finish line this year, we should take a pause and be grateful that California’s natural resource programs and agencies avoided draconian cuts in the final state budget approved in June. It’s understandable that fact has not received much attention amid the global pandemic, but it is no less remarkable given how these programs have fared in previous economic downturns.

Recall that when Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled his initial 2020-21 budget in January, the state was projected to have a nearly $6 billion general fund surplus. Newsom proposed augmenting a number of important natural resources programs, including additional staff for sustainable groundwater management, improved vegetation data and even a new state park.  

At that time, none of us realized a global pandemic and economic shutdown were lurking on the horizon. When Newsom released his revised budget in May, the state faced an estimated $54 billion deficit, and everyone switched from expanding programs to bracing for inevitable cuts.

Notably, several key programs to enhance our environment, improve public health and make California more resilient to climate change remained intact and even received slight funding increases in the final 2020-21 budget, underscoring their long-term importance even during the pandemic. These include:

  • $9 million to help the state to stay on track implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. This funding will expand Department of Water Resources staff to review tens of thousands of pages of groundwater sustainability plans and provide technical assistance to local agencies to ensure we have enough groundwater for agriculture, communities and wildlife for generations to come. 
  • Nearly $50 million and 10 staff positions for projects to address poor air quality and habitat restoration around the Salton Sea and pollution in the sea and the New River.  
  • $360,000 to establish an assistant secretary for environmental justice and an assistant secretary for tribal affairs at the California Natural Resources Agency. Part of Newsom’s January budget, these positions will help embed environmental justice into natural resource management.
  • $33 million in cuts to the Department of Fish and Wildlife were avoided. Much appreciation to Defenders of Wildlife for spearheading the effort to resist these cuts, which would have undermined a key department that is already chronically underfunded.

The Legislature postponed approving the 2020-21 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund Expenditure Plan as part of the budget enacted in June because of uncertainty about revenue from California’s cap-and-trade auctions, the source of money for the fund.

State lawmakers were expected to finalize a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund  plan by the end of August. However, the poor performance of May’s auction had put a damper on that effort. The just-released results from the August auction were more promising – roughly $474 million in revenue – so a plan may still come together. Even if it does though, there are still unanswered questions about how the state will pay for critical programs that rely on the  Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund over the longer term. This includes a new program approved last year to provide safe and affordable drinking water to approximately 1 million California’s who lack this fundamental human right. Ideally, this and other public health programs would not rely on a revenue stream that is supposed to wane over time as greenhouse gas emissions go down.  

Moreover, Newsom listed safe and affordable drinking water as his No. 1 priority in his recently finalized California Water Resilience Portfolio.  Newsom and legislators should uphold their commitment to safe and affordable drinking water and ensure the cap-and-trade auction funds go to this top priority.

In other disappointing news, an important conservation bill by Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose, stalled last week. Assembly Bill 3030 sets a goal of protecting 30% of California’s land, waters and oceans by 2030. If we reach this goal, California will improve open space access for communities of color and stave off extinctions of our diverse wildlife species. Hopefully, dialogue with opponents of the bill will occur this fall and we will be able to move this important policy forward in 2021.

Despite the uncertainty around AB 3030 and safe and affordable drinking water, it is heartening that during unprecedented crises, California leaders still managed to approve some policies and funding that address environmental injustices, protect our natural resources and build climate change resilience. It is proof that we can deal with crises while staying on track as an environmental leader.

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