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Experts: California should use one-time budget money for long-term benefits

by Ezra David Romero, Capital Public Radio |

Thanks to a $15 billion surplus, environmental issues like wildfire and climate change are being considered to receive $4.1 billion in spending in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget. This comes less than a year after the administration and legislature had to forgo ideas that could have helped curb the climate crisis and wildfire prevention tactics because of the pandemic.

Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary for Natural Resources, applauds the potential infusion of cash, in part because of the devastating nature of the 2020 fire season, in which more than 4 million acres burned.

“Catastrophic wildfires represent a severe and worsening threat that requires bold action,” Crowfoot said. “We need to shift our paradigm and invest in a scaled-up, cohesive strategy built on science to restore landscapes and protect communities.”

But while beneficial, the money comes from a one-time surplus and can only be used once.

The state Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) recommended lawmakers find ways to use the funds for efforts that will have long-term impacts and consider how to turn them into ongoing funds.

For example, the governor’s proposal calls for a billion dollars in new spending on wildfire prevention across 15 state departments. The potential infusion of one-time funds could be a sign of a shift in “political will” to publicly invest in tactics that will reduce the destructive nature of wildfires in the state, according to Sam Hodder, the president and CEO of Save the Redwoods League President.

“Prevention is the smarter, more economically and environmentally responsible choice every time,” Hodder said. “I applaud the Governor for launching that shift.”

Wildfire prevention is an area where very little state funding has been allotted in the past compared to fire suppression efforts. The state has a long history of suppressing fires, but doing so is part of the reason behind mega-fires in recent history.

The proposal calls for a billion dollars for fire prevention, of which $323 million would be used for early action this spring.

It also includes funding for prescribed burns, fuel break projects, making homes more resilient to fires and expanding job opportunities in both fire prevention and suppression. The proposal would set a goal of treating 500,000 acres by 2025, creating a prescribed fire training center, reducing the liability for prescribed burns, and giving grants to Indigenous tribes.

“This action plan provides a framework for community fire protection and forest resilience,” said Randy Moore, Regional Forester, Pacific Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service. “We have made progress on all lands, but much work remains to be done.”

Rachel Ehlers, principal fiscal and policy analyst with the LAO, said her group is asking the legislature “to really dig in deep and think, ‘Is this the right mix of activities?’”

“The legislature might want to consider whether certain programs should operate on an ongoing basis to address what is a long standing wildfire risk,” she said.

But Ehlers says doing so may be difficult as the legislature must balance the budget while considering the uncertainty of the pandemic and the year-round threat of wildfires.

“The need is so great,” she said. “It's just asking, ‘Where can we be most effective? Where can we get the biggest bang for the buck?’”

One of the ways Newsom is proposing to maximize the value of the one-time funds is by spending $1.5 billion dollars on electric vehicle incentives and building out charging infrastructure. This is a big deal because the state has a goal of putting 5 million zero-emission vehicles on roads by 2030 and building 250,000 charging stations by 2025. Newsom also called for all new cars to be sold as zero-emission by 2035.

“We want to accelerate our efforts to alternative fueled vehicles,” Newsom said last week. “Remember, this is a climate move. Not just an economic move, because at the end of the day, it's about health.”

The funds would support low-income Californians' ability to purchase electric cars with incentive programs.

Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition of Clean Air, said the plan would also hopefully leverage private sector dollars to build charging infrastructure.

“Governor Newsom has recognized that in order to clean up our air, and stabilize the climate, we need to clean up transportation,” he said. “The governor has really put his money where his mouth is.”