The California Budget, So Far

California legislators enacted a $300 billion-plus state budget this Monday, but when it comes to climate, their work is just beginning. 

As we are fond of noting, every dollar of our state government spending can help in the fight against the climate crisis. If we rise to this challenge, we will build a more resilient, equitable, and prosperous California. But the legislature continues to silo climate investments off from the main budget – tackling those investments in separate bills, sometimes months after the main budget has passed. This year, the stakes could not be higher, and what may show up in any “Budget Bill, Junior” related to climate will have implications for every aspect of California’s ability to take on the climate crisis.

Some Background:

Governor Newsom has proposed $32 billion in climate-related investments this year, in addition to the $15.5 billion in climate investments that were enacted last year. The Senate then proposed $18 billion in climate investments that were not included in the Governor’s proposal. The legislature had the opportunity this year, with an unprecedented budget surplus, to combine these two proposals to make a truly world-leading $50 billion climate commitment this year. Instead, the Legislature has largely adopted the governor’s proposed level of investment, which is still historic and badly needed, but falls short of what could be done if the state were to truly prioritize climate as the existential threat that it is. 

By passing a main budget that largely leaves climate investments untouched, how the money gets spent is now a matter of ongoing negotiations. These negotiations may all be resolved together in a single bill, or in phases. For example, the Legislature and the Governor could potentially reach an agreement on a Transportation Infrastructure package (with or without an agreement on High Speed Rail investments) before the end of June, but leave investments in zero emission vehicles, the electric system, drought and fire resilience, and natural resource issues until as late as late August. 

What’s Out:

Of the $32 billion in climate investments the Governor proposed, the legislature outright rejected only a small proportion, including $300 million for Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities and $130 million for various air pollution monitoring proposals, including $30 million for potentially game changing mobile air monitoring technology.

The Legislature also rejected the Governor’s proposed inflation and gas price relief package, which besides issuing up to two $400 debit cards to Californians with a motor vehicle registered in the state, would have invested $1.25 billion in grants to provide free transit and investments in safe routes for walking and biking. Instead the legislature has put forward a bill that would provide means-tested $200 rebates to Californians who file taxes and their dependents, but makes no provision for long term relief from gasoline prices like the transit and active transportation investment the Governor proposed. 

It is possible that the legislature may include some or all of these incentives and other rejected items in a separate bill, such as the $10.5 billion transportation infrastructure package that they have promised as part of this year’s final budget. However, the vast majority of proposals the legislature accepted were adopted in a manner that approves the dollar amount proposed, and approves the concept behind the program or project proposed, but “defers” deciding on the amount and implementation details of each investment. Given that these proposals were “rejected” rather than “deferred,” it seems less likely they would be revived unless prioritized by the Governor and/or members of the public in communications with the legislature. 

What’s In:

The legislature approved nearly $2 billion in proposals put forward by the governor, including $750 million for infill development and adaptive reuse programs that would help to build new housing in already densely populated areas and convert office and commercial space into housing. 

They also approved $40 million in one-time funding and $300 million in ongoing general fund expenditures to implement AB 617 (C. Garcia, 2017), a bill that seeks to improve air quality in some of California’s most-polluted neighborhoods. By making this funding ongoing, the legislature is taking a small step towards adopting one of Climate 100’s core recommendations: that we shift spending priorities into the budget baseline and make them a core part of what the state does each year.

What’s TBD: Everything Else

The legislature and the Governor will now work to agree on how, out of a $300 billion budget, to invest $21 billion in safeguarding our state’s electricity systems, natural resources, homes and communities, vehicles, schools, and virtually every other aspect of life in California. They will also negotiate the details of a $10.5 billion transportation infrastructure package that could shape our state for decades to come if not longer. The stakes for these “budget trailer bills” could not be higher, and NextGen has weighed in directly with the Governor and the Legislature on some of the most important considerations. 

These issues deserve the time and attention they will receive by being negotiated in stand-alone bills, rather than through the main budget. But they do not deserve to be an afterthought. The state should not start, as it has done this year, by agreeing on a price tag for addressing the climate crisis, and then leaving legislators and advocates to fight among themselves for slices of a fixed-size pie. Rather, the state should consider how every action it takes interacts with the climate crisis, and take the steps that are needed in order to protect our people, our places, and our future.