State lawmakers set stage for new two-year session
By Kate Campbell
As a new two-year legislative session begins in California, officials made a number of announcements last week that set the stage for balancing the state's budget and addressing the needs of stakeholders, including agriculture.
Gov. Brown proposed a balanced state budget that he said puts California on a long-term path to fiscal stability. And state Senate and Assembly leaders announced legislator's committee assignments.
"The budget cuts made in the last two years and the passage of Proposition 30 make it possible to both live within our means and to increase funding for education," Brown said, noting that when he took office, the state faced a $26.6 billion budget deficit and estimated annual gaps of roughly $20 billion.
The first two state budgets under Brown's watch all but eliminated these deficits.
The strategy behind the 2013-2014 state budget is to align expenditures with revenues, pay down debt and create a $1 billion reserve. The budget also boosts investment in education and implements health care reform. But Brown conceded economic risks could derail the budget's balance, such as the speed of the state's economic recovery and actions by the federal government.
Overall General Fund spending is projected to grow by 5 percent, from $93 billion in 2012-13 to $97.7 billion in 2013-14. The budget includes no new general tax increases, but makes some reforms to the state's enterprise zone tax incentives.
The budget forecasts a steadily improving economy but still-high unemployment and low economic growth in the medium term. Budget risks identified by the governor included the federal deficit, the uncertainty of the economic recovery and the unpredictability of health care costs.
Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare commented after the budget proposal was unveiled that it's good news for taxpayers that the state has made progress in getting our financial house in order.
"But, we haven't fully solved our budget problems just yet," Conway said. "Assembly Republicans agree that a 'live within our means' budget is the most fiscally responsible course for our state."
In light of the Legislature's one-party super majority, a political imbalance not seen in California governance in nearly 130 years, she said, "Now is not the time to enact massive spending increases that will reverse the progress we've made in reducing the deficit.
And, after a preliminary review of the proposed budget and planned expenditures, John Gamper, California Farm Bureau Federation director of taxation and land use, said, "While we respect the governor's decision to hold the line on previous spending cuts, a partial restoration of the Williamson Act subventions to fulfill the state's commitment, to this crucial land conservation program would go a long way toward stabilizing county support for the program."
Gamper noted that during the governor's budget press conference, Brown referred to projected cap-and-trade revenue for air pollution credits of $200 million in 2013-14 and $300 million in 2014-15, as "a small amount."
"If those amounts are viewed as small, then a $10 (million) to $20 million investment in farmland conservation would qualify as a truly wise investment both for the protection of food security and agriculture's contribution to the reduction in greenhouse gases."
With the new legislative session getting into full swing, CFBF's political affairs manager Casey Gudel said it's time to look ahead and take steps to protect agriculture by reaching out to elected officials.
Between redistricting and numerous congressional retirements, a large number of seats were open in 2012, producing nearly 40 new state legislators and 14 new congressional members, Gudel said.
"This large number of freshman representatives is a reminder that it is now more important than ever to reach out and build relationships with the new class of elected officials," she said. "Many of those elected to the state Legislature can serve up to 12 years as a result of the passage of Proposition 28 on the June ballot. These extended terms allow us to build a longer-standing relationship and reinforces why it is so important to make connections early as they hit the floor running."
Initial reviews indicate funding for the California Department of Food and Agriculture remains relatively stable.
Policy experts said ongoing working groups are discussing ways to upgrade the state's animal health and diagnostics lab system, which helps identify and prevent diseases to livestock and companion animals. Also due for an overhaul are the state's pest detection and prevention system for invasive species.
For rural residents and those with forest lands, the budget includes two important changes—a 1 percent assessment on lumber and other building wood products sold in California, with the revenue going to fund resources for reviewing existing and new timber harvest plans, and fees collected from property owners in State Responsibility Areas will be used to fund review and update of fire safety plans, with the addition of 65 new employees to implement the law.
The complete budget proposal for the state's 2012-13 fiscal year may be reviewed online at www.dof.ca.gov. Information on legislative committee assignments can be found at www.legislature.ca.gov.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.