During a recent family vacation in Colorado, I relished the absence of daily news about California's budget woes. It was a welcome reprieve to spend a week recreating, visiting with family and friends, and forgetting the budget deficit and California leaders' inability to agree on a comprehensive set of lasting solutions.
When I got back in early July though, I was right back into it. California started issuing IOUs instead of paying its bills and the "Big 5" (Governor Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders from each party) were meeting almost daily to come up with a plan to close the deficit, which stood at around $23 billion. After several weeks of negotiations, the legislature passed a budget on July 24 and the Governor signed it on July 28th. Wall Street is still determining California's credit worthiness and the State Controller is examining whether he can stop issuing IOUs. While the latest set of cuts and accounting tricks should ease California's cash flow problems, most budget watchers expect that the legislature and the governor will need to revisit the budget again in just a few short months. Revenues are still falling short of estimates, unemployment is high, and lawsuits have been filed over some of the budget provisions, compounding uncertainty.
The budget deal is mostly bad news for the environment. Severe cuts could lead to the closure of up to 100 state parks and public transportation is further decimated despite strong support for more transit investments. The budget also eliminates a program that lowers property taxes for farmers who agree to conserve their land, and abolishes the state's Integrated Waste Management Board which manages recycling and hazardous waste programs.
One piece of good news, however, is that the State Assembly voted down a misguided bill that would have granted the first new offshore oil drilling lease in 40 years. My colleague Leila Monroe recently wrote about the offshore oil deal and an alternative proposal that would have generated a lot more money, but didn't gain traction with Republican leaders this time around. The effort to push this deal through in closed-door budget negotiations demonstrates yet again that California's budget process is undemocratic and needs reform.
I'm hopeful that people will express their feelings about the loss of schools, parks, public transportation, healthcare and other vital services to their elected representatives; and that people's demands for a responsible state budget will shift the political winds and lead to real reform in Sacramento. Until then NRDC will fight to keep budget negotiations from derailing environmental progress. But I may need to get out beyond California's borders once in a while to gain perspective and recharge.