Desert Sun, 1-8-16
Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a $122.6 billion budgetThursday that sets aside more funding during the 2016-17 fiscal year for education, health care and infrastructure as well as emergency wildfire services and the Salton Sea.
Although coffers have soared in recent years, Brown stressed during a press conference that more than two-thirds of the state general fund comes from personal income taxes. Capital gains, for instance, are dependent on market forces, meaning that even a modest recession in the next year would have significant impacts on the budget.
As such, the governor also called for building up the state’s rainy day fund with an additional $2 billion while urging the Legislature to exert restraint in the upcoming session.
“Relative to budgets of the past, this budget is in good shape,” Brown said. “We also ought to look at what’s the capacity of the state, and what’s the taxpayer willingness to spend more.”
Brown also asked the Legislature for $719 million to pay for the costs of wildfire and other impacts of the drought, and another $80 million to aid the Salton Sea — a figure that Assembly member Eduardo Garcia described as a “a good first start and will fund the initial short-term projects designed for dust suppression and expanding habitat.”
“Going forward,” he added, “we will work closely with Gov. Brown to identify funding for the medium and long-term projects that further address the ongoing public health and ecological issues facing the Sea.”
That’s less than the $150 million local officials wanted, but still far more than the state has ever allocated for restoration projects at the dying lake. The money would come from the $7.5-billion water bond that voters approved in 2014, also known as Proposition 1.
The $80 million would help local agencies complete two plans to address the looming health and environmental consequences of the lake’s slow decline, which is expected to accelerate in 2018 when Colorado River flows are cut off. Those plans involve building a series of wetlands and canals to ring the current shoreline, surrounding a smaller, saltier center lake.
More importantly, the money would allow construction to begin on projects to suppress toxic dust and create habitat for fish and birds, said Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. While full-scale restoration will probably cost several billion dollars in the long term, the infusion of cash will help over the next few years.
“We’re going to build things with that $80 million,” Wilcox said. “We’re going to need more money as the years go on, but this is a big step in the right direction.”
The Imperial Irrigation District plans to lobby state lawmakers for the $150 million in Salton Sea funding the agency asked for last summer, as part of a $3.15 billion restoration plan.
“We will be working very hard to have this budget reflect the true need on the ground,” said Antonio Ortega, the district’s governmental affairs director.
Still, Ortega said the district was encouraged by Brown’s $80 million request, which would dwarf any previous funding the state has provided for the Salton Sea. The proposal comes on the heels of Brown forming a dedicated Salton Sea task force last year, and later appointing Wilcox, a former Imperial Irrigation District official, to head up Salton Sea policy for the state.
“This sends a signal that there is a commitment, there is an interest and a recognition by the state,” Ortega said. “Until today, we hadn’t seen it as a financial commitment.”
The Imperial Irrigation District has argued that state lawmakers haven’t lived up to their decade-old promise to fund restoration of the Salton Sea, which is shrinking as farm runoff declines. Over the last year, the district has threatened to cut off promised water supplies to the Coachella Valley and San Diego County if the state doesn’t take action, which many observers have credited with the Brown administration’s newfound interest in the Salton Sea.
The proposed budget also includes a $1.1 billion compromise on a new tax on health insurers to replace another one that will expire in June. Brown said the tax is critical to maintaining the state health care program for the poor, which is projected to cover 13.5 million people by 2017, nearly a third of the state’s population.
He balked at Republican suggestions that the money could be made up with already-existing surpluses, saying, “Anybody who says that is not an accountant or looking to the future.”
State Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican from Temecula, said in a statement he was encouraged by the governor’s plan to boost the rainy day fund. But he questioned a new tax on health insurers.
“I’m hopeful that Legislative Democrats will heed the Governor’s prudence and not fall into the temptation of adopting new programs and increasing government budgets,” he said.
Republican Assembly Leader Chad Mayes, from Yucca Valley, released a statement saying it would be mistake to spend money “as if it will reappear every year.”
“We’ve made this mistake before,” Mayes added. “Democrats should pay attention to the Legislative Analyst and Governor Brown’s warnings about overspending, and balance the need to invest in critical infrastructure projects to improve our roads, schools and dams with one-time money. These investments will benefit us for generations.”
Other highlights in the proposed budget:
- Per-pupil spending would increase to $10,591 under Brown’s plan, a $368 per-pupil increase over 2015-16. Brown also wants to direct money from other sources to compensate public schools for earlier lean years, which would increase spending to $14,500 per student in 2016-17.
- Tuition would remain flat for another year at University of California and California State University schools, while a voter-approved minimum funding guarantee will send funding for public schools and community colleges soaring along with state tax revenues.
- $807 million for deferred maintenance of levees, state parks, prisons, hospitals and more