Opinion

California agencies remain oblivious to the deficit

Laer Pearce Author, Crazifornia

Thanks to the ubiquitous ads from California’s dairy farmers, we all know California cows are happy cows — but how unhappy it must be to be a California cowfish! According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 98 percent of California’s bays and estuaries are unfit for aquatic life and 96 percent are unfit for fish consumption. Those statistics came from the introduction to the 2004 California Ocean Protection Act (COPA), which also says, “California has some of the most productive, diverse, and unique ocean life in the world.”

Which is it? Are California’s beaches and offshore waters a cesspool on the brink of collapse, or one of the most fabulous natural wonders of the world? Never mind asking John Burton — recently in the spotlight for calling Republicans terrorists — who authored the bill before being termed out and becoming the head of the California Democratic Party. It’s all just legislative hustle to him, words on a page that lead to laws in the books, which foster more bureaucrats becoming more dependent on the Democrats.

COPA and its spawn, the California Ocean Protection Council, caught my eye when the Council’s November 2010 agenda alone included nearly $2.5 million in grants poised for approval. For a state that’s looking down a budget hole of at least $20 billion a year for at least five more years, that seemed like a pretty lush garden of greenbacks. And indeed it is. It turns out that the Council doled out $10,438,316 for grants in 2009; of that, $1.7 million was funded by the feds and the remainder was paid for out of Proposition 50 bonds.

Passed by a 55/45 margin in 2002, Prop 50, the Water Quality, Supply and Safe Drinking Water Projects Act, authorized $3.4 billion in more bonded indebtedness for California so we’d have higher quality water. The last time I checked, drinking ocean water was not considered healthy, so why is the Ocean Protection Council getting any of these safe drinking water funds? Most of those who voted for Prop 50 probably thought the funds would go to make their water, not fishes’ water, safer, but the ballot summary sneaked in a wide-open barn door for future boondoggles, as the fifth of seven allowed uses was “competitive grants for water management and water quality improvement projects.” Burton jumped on that, and wrote COPA so it could raid the Prop 50 coffers, thereby avoiding the legislative hassles added onto bills that will impact the state’s beleaguered General Fund.

So, what are Californians getting for their money — which costs them $227 million a year in Prop 50 interest payments? For starters, at its November meeting the Ocean Protection Council gave a quarter million to a Portland, Oregon outfit called Ecotrust to develop a pilot program for a seafood market at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf that would be filled with “regionally sourced” seafood in order to promote sustainable fishing practices. Huh? As any visitor to Fisherman’s Wharf can tell you, free market enterprise has already filled the place with fishmongers hawking regionally sourced seafood. Why do taxpayers need to subsidize another seafood stand on the Wharf, and what does it have to do with the clean water voters thought they were voting for when they passed Prop 50?

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) also fared well at the Council’s November meeting. TNC, which contributed over $500,000 to the Prop 50 campaign, received most of it back with the approval of a $455,356 grant to assess the impacts of trawl fishing on the critters that live on the ocean floor. (TNC received just over $1 million from the Council in 2009 for the first phase of this study, so its investment in Prop 50 is paying outstanding returns.) With the latest TNC grant, California’s whipsawed taxpayers are funding a shoot-first-aim-later study, since in 2005, TNC succeeded in getting 3.8 million acres of ocean floor placed off-limits to fishermen who use trawling gear. Now, five years later, taxpayers are paying TNC to find out whether the group’s activism was necessary — or whether it hurt California’s fishermen for no reason. As was the case with the grant to Ecotrust, TNC’s grant was awarded without competitive bids, a violation of the ballot language for Prop 50.

The Ocean Protection Council is but a gnat on the back of the California bear, and the $10.4 million it doled out last year in questionable grants is a miniscule fraction of the money California’s agencies, commissions, councils and boards spend every year on equally questionable research. The California Energy Commission paid out $86.5 million for electricity and natural gas research in 2009, funded primarily by surcharges on the utility bills of those same whipsawed California taxpayers. Among the things the money went to were California’s very own climate change research center (as if there weren’t enough of those already), research into carbon capture technology, and grants to underwrite the cost of solar energy installations, since solar still isn’t capable of competing with Industrial Era power plants. One program of the California Air Resources Board alone, the Air Quality Improvement Fund, will grab $40 million of the state’s beleaguered General Fund revenues this year, spending it on programs like $5 million for rebates for clean vehicles, $3 million for a pilot project for an off-road hybrid vehicle, and $25 million to promote hybrid trucks and buses.

On and on it goes. The Ocean Protection Council, the Energy Commission, and the Air Resources Board are but three of over 300 state offices, agencies, departments, councils and boards, most of which routinely approve expenses like these. Sure, their staff reports are filled with justifications for the hand-outs and additional pages that show how the appropriations are legal — but they never explain how this spending orgy makes any sense at all. Take the $5 million CARB will spend to encourage people to buy clean vehicles like electric cars. Have the geniuses at CARB stopped to note that Californians pay 65 cents in taxes every time they buy a gallon of gasoline — the highest gas tax rate in the nation? Every electric car CARB subsidizes with taxpayer money will mean fewer precious gas tax dollars will be collected to pay for more of this fiscal insanity — an indication that eco-bureaucrats have absolutely no economic sensibilities whatsoever.

The grants make even less sense when considering California’s budget deficit. The state’s professional handlers of other peoples’ money shower researchers and grant-writers with hundreds of millions of dollars a year, as if the Golden State actually had a bottomless pot of gold available for such nonsense. Recession-wracked families and businesses are making hard choices each time they decide to spend a little money, but state agencies suffer no such concerns.

What California really needs, I hate to say, is yet another proposition on the ballot. This proposition — let’s call it the California Smack ‘Em Upside The Head Act — would first say if something doesn’t have concrete and rebar in it, it can’t be funded by bonds, and second, it would collect all the unspent bond money earmarked for gold-plated silliness and use it to pay off some of the state’s $1.3 trillion in bond debt. That certainly makes a lot more sense than building state-funded fish markets in Fisherman’s Wharf.

Laer Pearce, a veteran of three decades of California public affairs, is currently working on a book that shows how everything wrong with America comes from California.