Legislature likely to focus on water, budget, elections
Surveying the political landscape, California Farm Bureau Federation policy experts say the 2010 legislative session looks like rocky terrain with more than a few regulatory twists. They're expecting the coming year to include considerable attention to water issues, the state budget crisis and an election and ballot fracas.
In addition to deciding on a new governor, voters will elect candidates for all 80 Assembly seats and 20 Senate seats, and will have to wade through a flood of ballot initiatives. At Ag Alert® press time there were 95 initiatives proposed or qualified for this year's elections, including an $11.4 billion water bond. The California Secretary of State's office stressed, however, that not all will qualify for the ballot.
"There probably will be some efforts to modify the environmental protections that are in the package of water bills passed last year," said CFBF Administrator Rich Matteis. "We know there'll be a bill that reworks the penalties for those found to be misreporting water diversions and there may be attempts to modify other aspects of what was passed. It's a given that not everyone is completely happy with the Legislature's water package."
He said Farm Bureau will be vigilant and engaged when it comes to any tinkering with last year's water package.
"Our goal is to maintain the integrity of agreements made during the negotiations," Matteis said. "It would be disingenuous for some stakeholders to attempt changes to that legislation that could increase the potential for negative impacts on water costs, rights and reliability.
"We have a role to play in the implementation of the water-bill package," Matteis said. "There'll be a significant number of appointments made to commissions and boards that Farm Bureau will be watching."
The water-bill package calls for creation of several advisory boards, including the Delta Stewardship Council and the Delta Conservancy, as well as the California Water Commission.
"We hope these mandated commissions will be balanced and reflect a cross section of interests, including agriculture," Matteis said.
A bigger challenge than passage of the water legislation last year will be the implementation of those new laws, said Danny Merkley, CFBF water resources director.
"We'll be working with the State Water Board as they develop new flow criteria for the delta ecosystem," Merkley said. "They'll be doing this in consultation with the Department of Fish and Game for the purpose of informing planning decisions for the Delta Plan and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. We'll be actively engaged in the public process while they develop the flow criteria."
The State Water Board continues to work on new septic system regulations, Merkley said. The Water Quality Improvement Initiative to restructure the State Water Resources Control Board and regional water quality control boards will probably spark new legislation.
There also will be implementation of previously approved legislation, such as AB 2121, which addresses in-stream water flows, initially on the North Coast. And, issues surrounding water used for frost protection in the Russian River watershed will continue to draw attention. The Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program in several regional water quality control boards also will be up for renewal this year.
"We're all concerned about funding for the Williamson Act," said John Gamper, CFBF taxation and land use director. "We'll need to work with the budget subcommittees and all legislators to impress upon them the importance of keeping this land conservation program a budget priority."
The governor used his line-item veto in July to reduce the state's Williamson Act subvention payments to just $1,000, eliminating payments to the counties from the state's 2009-10 fiscal year budget. Despite this cut to the subvention payments, Gamper stressed that the program is still in place and Farm Bureau will continue to work with lawmakers to maintain the integrity of the program, to help insure its continued benefits.
As 2010 gets under way, the fiscal outlook for California is still very bleak. Economic experts say California faces a nearly $21 billion budget shortfall during the next 18 months and there's talk of the state defaulting on its debt obligations. Added to that, the pressure of the upcoming elections will add stress to the already difficult job of approving a new state budget by June 30.
The governor is scheduled to unveil his budget proposal this week.
"We're also concerned about the implementation of Senate Bill 375, a bill that attempts to link local land-use decisions with concern about man's impact on climate change," Gamper said. "This new law could have a profound impact on the planning and zoning process resulting in higher density, mixed-use developments that are less dependent on automobiles."
He said that means working through agencies like the state Strategic Growth Council and Environmental Protection Agency to influence how these new laws will be implemented.
"We'll have to be particularly vigilant for new taxes that will impact farmers and ranchers, as well as all Californians," Gamper said. "We're concerned about resurrection of proposed sales taxes on veterinary services and increased excise taxes on alcohol that could impact our winegrape growers and vintners, such as the "dime-a-drink" tax included in Assembly Bill 1019, which is scheduled for a policy committee vote in early January.
"Everything is back on the table because of the budget crisis," Gamper said.
Given the gravity of the state's financial situation, Farm Bureau's policy experts said there likely will be other efforts to impose new fees or increase current fees, as well as previously announced efforts to increase taxes.
In the area of labor relations, CFBF Labor Affairs Director Bryan Little said, "Keep in mind that the services the state Employment Development Department provides are paid for by employer taxes and they're covered by a completely separate trust fund. Unemployment insurance benefits and job placement services to laid-off workers are covered by those funds. But, the fund is expected to experience a shortfall in coming months."
Revenue going into the trust fund, however, is running a little better right now than was projected, Little said.
"The federal government will have a say in how the shortfall is worked out," he said. "There will be a lot of pressure from the federal side, because the state has already borrowed money from the federal government for the state's trust fund and repayment of that borrowing must come out of the state's general fund."
That will create pressure from some in the Legislature to raise taxes, because labor groups aren't going to want unemployment benefits cut, Little said.
"We're committed to ensuring that programs important to agriculture continue to be cost-effective and viable," Matteis said.
Invasive pest exclusion and eradication is an example of a government responsibility that has far-reaching public benefits, said Cynthia Cory, CFBF director of natural resources. She pointed out that about half of the California Department of Food and Agriculture budget allocation from the state general fund goes to plant health and pest protection—$66 million. About $23 million goes to exclude animal pests.
The Invasive Species Advisory Committee, which includes CFBF governmental affairs specialist Andrea Fox among its members, has been directed to come up with a list of invasive pests that could threaten California.
Matteis stressed that the state's ongoing budget crisis is serious and the implications are far-reaching for farmers, ranchers and all Californians.
"We will all need to help by focusing on the problems and staying engaged as strategies develop to address them," he said.
One of the best ways to track Farm Bureau's efforts to help resolve issues of importance to agriculture and to stay in touch with developments in the political arena is through participation in Farm Team. Information on joining Farm Team is available online at www.cfbf.com.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She maybe contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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