Friday, May 22, 2009

Will the State Budget Mess Affect Marine Protected Areas?

Vern Goehring, May 22, 2009

Everyone has heard about the terrible budget problems facing the State.

Voters earlier this week rejected all of the measures the Governor and Legislators placed on the ballot to resolve the mess. The Governor estimates that the rejection will result in a $21 billion shortfall in the current and next year budget. The Legislative Analyst reported yesterday the deficit may actually be $24 billion.

The Governor was quick to respond to the drubbing his budget proposals took. He recognizes that the public wants elected officials to do their job responsibly. He said, “We went in the wrong direction. Now let’s go in the right direction. Let’s do what the people want…. Go out and make those cuts and live within (our) means.”

The Legislature was also quick to react. It appointed a special conference committee of Senate and Assembly members, Republicans and Democrats, to begin looking in every cupboard and behind every door for anything that can be cut or reduced.

Interest groups of all kinds are worried that their favorite ongoing program or service will be eliminated. They are preparing strategies to head off efforts to cut them out of the State’s budget.

But what about programs that will have large costs, but are not yet underway? Is anyone looking at those to prevent unfunded mandates from even getting started?

When most people think of unfunded mandates they think of the Legislature adopting bills with huge costs, but no money. While not perfect, the Legislature has several mechanisms to head this off: fiscal committees and fiscal staff to identify costs, the Department of Finance to estimate the cost of legislation and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst to be available to help. And it does this twice – once in the Senate and once in the Assembly.

If the Legislature misses an unfunded mandate, the Governor has the final word and often vetoes bills because of it.

The Fish & Game Commission, however, has no such checks and balances. It has no fiscal staff or fiscal committee; it has no second entity reviewing its actions. It doesn’t even normally concern itself with the implementation costs of its actions. When the Commission adopts a regulation, it takes effect whether there is funding to carry it out or not.

Pending before the Fish & Game Commission is the adoption of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Numerous studies in recent years have set the full cost of managing MPAs in the $30-60 million range. The Department of Fish & Game recently estimated costs at $35-55 million annually once MPAs are created throughout the State.

Of course proponents of MPAs, with the Administration’s help, are ridiculing the estimate and promising that private money will come forward in the future to adequately manage MPAs. If your objective is to shut down fishing that may be acceptable, but if your objective is to conserve marine species - monitoring and management would be nice.

Deciding to not create an MPA unfunded mandate is within the authority of the Fish & Game Commission and the Governor. Will they do the right thing and not create more demands on a shrinking pool of resources. Will they actually hear what the voters said? Or will they move forward with a new program that costs far more than anyone ever anticipated. Will the Governor actually try to “live within our means?”

The Governor really wants a map of MPAs to take with him when he leaves office. But will he choose to dump yet another budget problem on the next Governor?

The answer to that question is also the answer to the title question.

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