State eyes cli­mate bond for dis­as­ters

Antelope Valley Press - - NEWS - By ADAM BEAM

SACRA­MENTO — In a state bur­dened by bil­lions of dol­lars in wild­fire dam­age, Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers are hop­ing for an ad­vance loan be­fore the next cli­mate-fu­eled catas­tro­phe hits.

Law­mak­ers in the Demo­cratic-dom­i­nated state Leg­is­la­ture re­turn to work Mon­day for the sec­ond year of a twoyear ses­sion. Their to-do list in­cludes a $4.2 bil­lion cli­mate bond, an am­bi­tious pro­posal to bor­row money be­fore they need it to pre­pare for the types of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters that have plagued the state. The dis­as­ters are so destruc­tive they forced the na­tion’s largest util­ity, Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric, to file for bank­ruptcy last year.

The bor­row­ing pro­posal is one of dozens of holdover bills from last year that are still alive in 2020 but must pass at least one leg­isla­tive cham­ber by the end of Jan­uary to have a chance at be­com­ing law. The log­jam is com­pli­cated by an ac­cel­er­ated elec­tion cy­cle that puts many law­mak­ers on pri­mary elec­tion bal­lots in March in­stead of June, mak­ing it less likely for po­lit­i­cally risky pro­pos­als to ad­vance.

“We have kind of a per­fect storm,” said vet­eran Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant An­drew Acosta.

Cat­a­strophic wild­fires have de­stroyed thou­sands of homes, gen­er­at­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in in­sur­ance claims and cost­ing taxpayers bil­lions more in cleanup costs. The bulk of the bor­row­ing pro­posal, de­tailed in sim­i­lar ef­forts au­thored by

Demo­crat Ben Allen in the Se­nate and Demo­crat Ed­uardo Gar­cia in the Assem­bly, would go to­ward re­duc­ing wild­fire risk through­out the state. It also in­cludes money to pro­tect farm­land from cli­mate change, bol­ster the state’s scarce wa­ter sources and help coastal com­mu­ni­ties plan for sea level rise.

The $4.2 bil­lion price tag could grow as law­mak­ers dis­cuss adding more projects for things like buy­ing so­lar bat­ter­ies and fuel cells to keep the lights on at nurs­ing homes and other vul­ner­a­ble sites when util­ity com­pa­nies pre­emp­tively shut off elec­tric­ity to pre­vent wild­fires dur­ing windy con­di­tions.

“We’ve been re­ally good about in­vest­ing in sup­pres­sion — in other words, fire­fight­ers and he­li­copters,” said Demo­cratic Sen. Henry Stern. “We haven’t done that good of a job in pre­ven­tion.”

Pass­ing the Leg­is­la­ture would be the just first step for the cli­mate bond be­cause Cal­i­for­nia can’t bor­row the funds un­less vot­ers ap­prove it. Vot­ers could be weary of more bonds be­cause the state has bor­rowed so much money in re­cent years that of­fi­cials are hav­ing trou­ble spend­ing it all. Of the $150 bil­lion in bor­row­ing au­tho­rized by vot­ers in re­cent years, more than $34 bil­lion has yet to be spent.

“We can­not spend money un­til projects are ready,” state Trea­surer Fiona Ma said. “Some­times it takes 10-plus years to spend money that is au­tho­rized in a bond act.”

Plus, vot­ers will be asked in March to bor­row an­other $15 bil­lion to build more pub­lic schools, in­creas­ing the chances of spend­ing fa­tigue — es­pe­cially as Cal­i­for­nia’s econ­omy con­tin­ues to grow, pro­duc­ing record bud­get sur­pluses.

Sup­port­ers in the Leg­is­la­ture, in­clud­ing Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem Toni Atkins, rec­og­nize the po­ten­tial peril of ask­ing the pub­lic to add to the state’s debt. But they be­lieve res­i­dents of cli­mate-con­scious Cal­i­for­nia will em­brace bor­row­ing aimed at pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

“I think if mem­bers of the pub­lic know that this money is go­ing to is­sues around cli­mate change, they care about that,” Atkins said.

Some Repub­li­cans are skep­ti­cal, in­clud­ing Assem­bly­man James Gal­lagher, whose dis­trict in­cludes the town of Par­adise, which was mostly de­stroyed in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire.

In­stead of bor­row­ing more, Gal­lagher said the state should use some of the bil­lions of dol­lars gen­er­ated ev­ery year by its cap-and-trade sys­tem to re­duce wild­fire fuel by bet­ter man­ag­ing forests. He also wants to tem­po­rar­ily block a state law that re­quires util­i­ties to buy more ex­pen­sive so­lar and wind power and up­grade their equip­ment to make it less likely to spark wild­fires dur­ing wind­storms.

Gal­lagher ques­tioned whether bor­row­ing is the best prac­tice “con­sid­er­ing the amount of debt we have right now.”

“There are ex­ist­ing dol­lars in gov­ern­ment that I think we could just bet­ter tar­get,” he said.

Other pro­pos­als in leg­isla­tive limbo in­clude a con­tro­ver­sial bill by Sen. Scott Wiener to boost hous­ing den­sity near pub­lic trans­porta­tion by al­low­ing apart­ment build­ings in ar­eas cur­rently zoned for sin­gle-fam­ily homes. Atkins said Wiener is work­ing on some amend­ments around “lo­cal flex­i­bil­ity” that she said might help the bill make it through the Se­nate.

If it does, it could find a re­cep­tive au­di­ence in the Assem­bly.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem Toni Atkins is wary about ask­ing the pub­lic for an ad­vance loan to pay for a $4.2 bil­lion cli­mate bond to pre­pare the state for nat­u­ral dis­as­ters such as wild­fires.

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