California’s Climate Conundrum

California’s budget deficit forces hard decisions on spending.

Luca D'Agruma

In the face of declining economic growth and tax revenues, California is projected to have a $24 billion budget deficit. After years of expansion of social programs, spending, and various fiscal obligations, the stakes are high over what gets cut.

Announcing his budget plan while tens of thousands of Californians were evacuated due to January’s winter storms, Governor Gavin Newsom said his budget ensures California is “on solid economic footing” by downsizing programs but ensures funding for “universal preschool [and] expand health care access.”

Newsom’s plan continues to fund social programs that were created over the past several years–during the pandemic, California enjoyed yearly surpluses built from the successes of the stock market–but now those added spending obligations are difficult to meet within a deficit. While Newsom’s meeting some goals of his administration, activists say it’s far more telling what he isn’t saying about the budget, namely, what his budget is cutting.

“We are still in the throes of funding and implementing the transition to clean energy our future depends on,” said Mary Creasman, CEO of California Environmental Voters, “We have to sustain our commitment to climate action every year. This proposed budget doesn’t do that.”

In search of money to cut, Newsom landed on climate investments, activists complain. In comparison to two years of heavy spending on climate, his current budget proposal includes cuts of nearly $900 million to cleaning up the power grid, almost $200 for drought resilience, almost $500 million for extreme-heat protection, and almost $800 million for wildlands and coastal conservation, according to the San Francisco Examiner. In all, the 2023-2024 climate budget will be $6 billion dollars less than last year.

State Senator Monique Limon, the Chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus who represents Santa Barbara and Ventura county, responded to the budget proposal measuredly, yet pointedly.

“With billions in state reserves we have the opportunity to safeguard the progressive investments we have made…I look forward to working with my colleagues as well as the Governor to deliver a budget that will deliver on our priorities,” Limon said.

Over the course of the next year, the legislature will work with the Governor to craft a budget. With a super-majority in both the Senate and the Assembly, Democrats have complete control, but there are tensions between activist-alligned progressives and moderates, who are more likely to support the Governor.

Last year, climate bills focusing on banning oil extraction in residential areas passed the legislature and gained Newsom’s support, but many moderate Democrats voted against them. With Newsom planning on reducing the budget and many moderates working with him, it becomes harder for progressives to override his veto power.

“California will need to rapidly and radically transform how we get around,” wrote David Weiskopf, a Senior Policy Advisor for Next Gen Policy in an Op-Ed, “Meeting California’s climate goals means taking an all-of-government approach to decarbonization…California can’t just fun climate programs when it has a surplus.”