Next year’s climate fights will be in the budget

With help from Blanca Begert, Camille von Kaenel and Wes Venteicher

BUDGET SCARIES: California’s budget deficit is so bad that Gov. Gavin Newsom told state agencies yesterday to stop buying office supplies. That doesn’t bode well for climate spending.

Last week’s reveal of a $68 billion deficit next year — the worst in state history — has lawmakers and environmental groups gearing up to play defense starting next month on their favorite climate spending, from electric vehicles to cooling centers.

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“When you have a deficit of this magnitude, that is going to overshadow everything happening in the Legislature in the first half of the year,” said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air.

California’s investment in climate programs reached a high mark last year, as lawmakers passed a $54 billion package meant to last several years and a plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2045 on the back of a massive budget surplus. The state’s already clawed $6 billion of that back this year as revenue has slowed, cutting conservation, infrastructure and community resilience funding; Newsom and lawmakers promised environmental groups they’d ask voters to backfill those cuts via a bond on the November ballot.

Lawmakers will be in the position of having to manage competing interests within the climate space desperate to maintain their foothold in a shrinking funding pool. And environmental groups are already angry at the prospect of budget cuts they argue would set California back on reaching its climate goals.

Guessing a ballpark number for the bond, already a Sacramento parlor game, is taking on a desperate tinge as advocates see shrinking voter appetite to take on more debt. Estimates are dipping as low as $3 billion, down from the more than $15 billion that’s currently included in two legislative versions.

“The expectation is it will be lower than what the current bond number is,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella Valley), author of one of the bonds, AB 1567.

“Anytime you see that kind of deficit, it’s worrying,” said state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), chair of the Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee and the author of the other bond. “There will almost certainly be cuts, so of course I’m concerned.” He said areas that could be well-insulated are ones that need state funding to match federal dollars.

Environmental groups are also worried about a repeat of 2013, when lawmakers raided the state’s cap-and-trade proceeds for a loan to the General Fund.

But Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park), the chair of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection and Energy, signaled he’d preserve that pool for climate spending. “We do have the greenhouse gas reduction fund money; that’s a steady source of revenue,” he said in an interview.

Morale is low among environmental justice advocates, who fear they’ll get the short end of the stick. Elle Chen, senior policy and campaign manager at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, said the group is pushing the state to restore funding for community resilience centers, which provide shelter during extreme weather events, and boost funding for EJ priorities like the Transformative Climate Communities program — which focuses on low-income neighborhoods — in the bond.

“It’s an uphill battle and we are concerned that these are not going to be prioritized,” Chen said. — AN