SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers on Thursday voted to spend more than $2 billion to prevent wildfires and address a severe drought, closing the book — for now — on a $262.5 billion operating budget that began the year with a record deficit because of the pandemic and ended with a record surplus in spite of it.
Wildfire spending in California has more than tripled since 2005, surpassing $3 billion last year. But most of that money is spent on putting out fires, not preventing them.
That strategy hasn’t been working in an era of climate change that is making fires larger than ever and more difficult to put out. Fifteen of the state’s most destructive wildfires have occurred in the last 10 years. Five of the largest wildfires in state history happened just last year, and a fire that’s still burning this year is the second largest ever.
New spending approved Thursday brings California’s wildfire prevention budget to more than $1.5 billion. The money will pay for things like the strategic clearing of brush and trees that could fuel massive fires in the future. It will also pay for a bevy of inspectors to review homes in wildfire prone areas before they are sold.
Lawmakers also approved an additional $1.2 billion to pay for things like grants to plan for climate change, water recycling projects and cleaning up contaminated water sources. Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Kevin Mullin, a Democrat from South San Francisco, called it “the largest state level investment in climate resilience, ever.”
But some lawmakers from both parties were disappointed with the final spending package. State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont, said Newsom got everything he wanted in the budget while lawmakers had to sacrifice some of their priorities, including hundreds of millions of dollars in additional spending for various sate conservancies that promote and protect undeveloped landscapes.
“It’s uninspirational. It’s not bold,” Wieckowski said of the budget’s climate spending during a committee hearing on Tuesday.
The drought in the western United States has drained California’s complex system of 1,500 reservoirs that store water for drinking, agriculture, energy and fish habitat throughout the year. One of the biggest, Lake Oroville in Northern California, has so little water that state officials were forced to shut down a large hydroelectric power plant for the first time ever.
Yet California’s spending plan does not have any money for water storage projects. The Newsom administration noted about $2.7 billion is set aside for seven water storage projects, including a plan to build the largest new reservoir in California in more than 40 years. But Assemblyman Vince Fong, a Republican from Bakersfield and vice chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, said voters approved that money seven years ago and so far nothing has been built.
“This budget is a missed opportunity,” Fong said. “We have the resources, we have the projects, but we apparently lack the political will.”
The bills approved Thursday represent agreements reached between Newsom and Democratic leadership in the state Legislature. But they couldn’t agree on everything, leaving about $3.3 billion in transportation money unspent. That means about $1 billion for infrastructure projects to prepare for the 2028 summer Olympics in Los Angeles will be delayed while negotiations continue into next year.