GROUPS SAY CALIFORNIA ENVIRONMENT GETS "BAND-AID" BUDGET
Polluter and User Fees Needed to Ensure Long Term Funding for Programs That Protect Land, Air and Water
SACRAMENTO (July 7, 2005) -- Stopgap funding will keep California's environmental programs from screeching to a halt, but conservation groups warned that the state's new budget ducks the long term need to find funding for air and water quality protection, parks, wildlife and other essential natural resources. The groups called on elected officials to develop stable funding sources that will ensure a healthy environment for the state's growing population.
"This year we got a band-aid budget to keep environmental and public health programs going," said Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "But these programs have been bleeding for years. We need to do more than staunch the flow."
Deep budget cuts in recent years have crippled many of the agencies responsible for protecting natural resources. For example, the Department of Fish and Game's (DFG) General Fund budget was slashed from $78 million to $36 million from 2000 to 2004. California consequently lost more than a quarter of its fish and game wardens, leaving staffing at 1960 levels despite a ballooning population. The cuts, while miniscule compared to the overall budget, have devastated the agency's ability to protect and conserve fish and wildlife.
The budget passed by the Legislature includes a natural resources stewardship package that temporarily addresses critical funding needs. The package includes:
- $5 million to hire more Fish and Game wardens;
- $1 million to raise the Wild/Heritage Trout Program back to 1980s levels;
- $1.7 million to review Timber Harvest Plans;
- $3 million to maintain and operate state fish hatcheries;
- $500,000 to implement California's landmark Marine Life Protection Act;
- $8 million for state park staffing;
- $3 million for deferred maintenance at state parks; and
- $8 million for salmon restoration projects.
The package also authorizes the Coastal Commission to raise $2.3 million from development permits to review offshore oil leases and proposals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. The permits also would fund programs to increase the public's access to coastal areas.
"We urge the governor to keep these important one-time increases in natural resource funding when he signs the budget bill," said Kim Delfino, California program director with Defenders of Wildlife. "This money will improve protections for our state's fish, wildlife, parks and coastal areas."
Conservation groups said they're encouraged by a bright spot in funding for CALFED, a state-federal program to restore the San Francisco Bay-Delta and ensure a clean, reliable water supply for agriculture and urban water users. The budget agreement encourages users to pay more of the true environmental cost of pumping water from the delta by reducing by $7 million state funding to purchase back up water supplies when the Endangered Species Act requires reductions in delta pumping. It also ends funding for state participation in studies to raise Shasta Dam and to build a new water storage project in the delta. Conservationists say the agreement represents a first significant step toward a CALFED financing plan that recognizes there are limited available state and federal monies in the foreseeable future. It also moves toward implementing a CALFED policy that water users should pay for any new projects that will benefit them. Unfortunately, it does not include a new water user fee that is called for in the CALFED plan to finance ecosystem restoration projects.
Conservationists say that California needs to ensure adequate funding for environmental programs in the long run. They advocate a strategy known as "polluter pays," in which polluters and users of natural resources pay for the cost of environmental regulations. The final budget agreement dropped the Legislature's proposals for user fees that would have accomplished this, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab.
For example, according to the State Water Board's biennial monitoring report, 85 percent of the length of the state's rivers and streams are never monitored. The Legislature proposed to use federal funds for water quality monitoring and to pay for pollution control programs by charging polluter fees, but those fees were dropped from the final budget as a result of heavy lobbying by industry. Likewise, the budget deal eliminated higher commercial fish landing fees to cover the review of projects that may harm fish and wildlife.
"The Legislature and governor have continued to increase fees for hunters and anglers while the fees paid by developers and timber companies have not been raised for more than a decade," said Brian Stranko, executive director of CalTrout. "This year, it is no different. The budget deal makes hunters and anglers pick up the tab for more and more of the Department of Fish and Game's budget while giving others a free pass."
CalTrout also said budget dealmakers should have allowed tidelands oil revenue to continue being used to help restore the state's endangered runs of salmon and steelhead trout and for other natural resource purposes. At the same time, a brand new $300 million pot of the tidelands money is being set aside to abandon oil wells in the City of Long Beach 10 to 15 years before the funds will actually be needed. "We're disappointed because the state can afford to do both with the windfall in tidelands money we're receiving," said Stranko.
Conservation groups said that eliminating fee increases puts the burden of cleaning up the environment on taxpayers' shoulders. "We strongly urge the Legislature and the governor to take up these items again in a trailer bill later in the session," said Linda Sheehan of the California Coastkeeper Alliance. "They should devise a plan to address long-term funding needs in next year's budget."