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California Budget To Put Big Bucks Toward Wildfire Prevention

The Salt Fire burns in Shasta County, as seen from Antlers Campground and RV Park June 30, 2021.
Andrew Nixon
The Salt Fire burns in Shasta County, as seen from Antlers Campground and RV Park June 30, 2021.

California lawmakers approved a budget package Thursday that would guarantee nearly $1 billion in wildfire prevention funding for the current fiscal year and require at least $200 million annually for the next six years.

The funding this year would be nearly triple what Gov. Gavin Newsom approved for wildfire prevention and resource management in his first year in office. The budget package comes after months of long and contentious negotiations between lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and between lawmakers and the Newsom administration. Wildfire prevention has taken a front-seat this budget season, after California saw a record 4.3 million acres burn last year. The state is on track to match that total this year.

Investigations from CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom also sparked debate within the Legislature over funding and spurred calls for oversight hearings. One story revealed Newsom significantly overstated the amount of fire prevention work completed during his first year in office. It also found the governor signed a budget last year that cut funding for fire prevention by about $150 million.

The nearly $1 billion in funding this year, and the guaranteed $200 million annually going forward, earned bipartisan support in the Legislature. But Democratic and Republican lawmakers said there’s more work to do.

“Never before has the Golden State invested as much in wildfire prevention and response than we have this year,” said Sen. Mike McGuire (D–Healdsburg) in a budget committee hearing this week. But he added that the state is still in “desperate need of a long-term strategic plan.”

Assemblyman James Gallagher (R–Yuba City) commended the appropriation, but argued the state still “is not doing enough acreage every year” when it comes to forest management.

“One of the significant ways to break that backlog is to streamline CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] and other regulations that are getting in the way of doing these projects,” he said.

Proposed spending on wildfire prevention has fluctuated in recent months.

In June, Newsom and lawmakers tentatively agreed on a plan to spend over $450 million on wildfire prevention in the current fiscal year, and then earmark an additional half-billion dollars for next year. After some pushback — most vocally from Republican members who represent fire-torn districts — the Legislature agreed that Cal Fire could tap into the additional half-billion dollars this year, if the department could justify the need.

In the last week of the legislative session, lawmakers changed course again: The nearly $1 billion for fire prevention is allocated for this fiscal year — none of it will be set aside for next year.

For the next six years, the state will guarantee at least $200 million annually for wildfire prevention. The money will come from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which is funded by the state’s cap-and-trade program.

Currently, the Legislature is strongly encouraged to allocate $200 million from the fund for fire prevention, but it’s not required. That led to the money being delayed in 2020, as the state anticipated a sharp deficit resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Newsom signed a budget with a roughly $150 million drop in funding for prevention projects compared to the previous year.

Earlier this year, as the state found itself with a surprise surplus, Newsom signed an “early action” budget item that directed $536 million for preventing and responding to wildfires. This money is on top of the nearly $1 billion allocated under the package passed by lawmakers.

The package also requires the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees Cal Fire, to submit annual reports to the Legislature that details how the agency spends wildfire prevention funding and describes forest management projects completed that year.

Copyright 2021 CapRadio