County calls for state surplus to be spent on water, transportation projects

Tulare County Board of Supervisors ask state lobbyist to push for greater funding to fix the Friant-Kern Canal and to widen Highway 99

VISALIA – Tulare County Supervisors weren’t surprised this week when they were informed some of the Governor’s budget priorities don’t align with their own. The public might be surprised to know that some of them do. 

County Information Officer Tammie Weyker-Adkins laid out the county’s 2022 legislative platform at the state level, which includes drought impacts, affordable housing, foster youth, funding for multidisciplinary teams to address homelessness, workforce development and highway infrastructure. 

Paul Yoder, Tulare County’s legislative lobbyist, said Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget identified COVID-19 safety measures, climate change, homelessness, cost of living and public safety as the state’s top priorities, essentially everything the county prioritized with the exception of foster youth and workforce development. Yet while the goals are similar, the methods to get there are quite different.

Yoder said there has been a lot of requests and advocacy for more funding from this year’s budget which boasts a $47 billion surplus. Unfortunately, Yoder said the surplus is more like $20 billion after the state fully funds schools, makes one-time payments to the public employee and teacher pensions and backfilling the state’s rainy day fund reserves. 

The supervisors maintained their top priority is surface water storage and conveyance after recording the driest Januarys on record in Tulare County. Locally, the most immediate need is to restore water flow in the Friant-Kern Canal, which has lost 60% of its capacity south of Lindsay to subsidence, when the ground sinks into the gaps created by the drop in groundwater levels. 

Yoder said the Governor is not proposing much in the way of water storage projects but said there are members of the legislation, from both within the Valley and the rest of the state, who are interested in making both surface and groundwater storage a state priority. He said two of the state’s Republican Caucuses were pushing for construction of the Sites Reservoir. The $5.2 billion offstream reservoir would allow the Sacramento Valley to capture an additional 1.5 million acre feet of water for farms, communities and environmental uses. Construction on the project is expected to begin in 2023 with the reservoir coming online in 2030 despite being a project for several decades.

“Why does it take so freaking long to get money from the state to our counties, especially with water,” Chair Eddie Valero said in frustration. 

Supervisor Dennis Townsend said it appears as though most lawmakers would fund groundwater recharge projects instead of repairing the state’s 50-year-old water conveyance infrastructure and building new reservoirs. Sen. Melissa Hurtado’s (D-Sanger) SB 559 bill would have provided $400 million to fix the Friant-Kern Canal, which would have been enough to fully fund the repairs, but was cut down to possibly $100 million over a few years.

“We need to talk about above ground storage for when we do have good water years,” Townsend said.

Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said another top priority for Tulare County was more state funding for the widening of Highway 99. The main north-south arterial in the Valley is currently two lanes in each direction from Delano to Tulare and from Fresno to Elk Grove. CalTrans broke ground in October on a project to widen Highway 99 from four to six lanes between Prosperity Avenue and Avenue 280 in Tulare County but Vander Poel was hoping to “further” the widening project to open up for more trucks leaving Tulare County’s packing houses, milk processors and the Visalia Industrial Park. 

Yoder sounded hopeful because widening the highway would be more of a one-time project than an ongoing project, which the Governor has prioritized to ensure this year’s surplus has an impact for many years. 

Supervisor Amy Shuklian, who is the incoming chair of the Government Finance and Administration Committee for the California State Association of Counties (CSAC), asked if the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act, a proposed 2022 proposition, had enough momentum to make the ballot. Also known as the California Tax Limits and Vote Requirements Initiative, the initiative requires any new local taxes can only be placed on the ballot by two-thirds vote of the governing body and it must be approved by the voters on a general election ballot. It also requires any new fees be approved by two-thirds of the governing body and any tax measures specifically limit how revenues can be spent. 

While CSAC has yet to take an official position, the League of California Cities said, “The measure would significantly jeopardize cities’ ability to provide necessary services and critical infrastructure to residents. It would impose onerous and undemocratic restrictions on local governments and local voters that would reduce local revenues by billions every year, decimating vital services like fire and emergency response, infrastructure, libraries, parks, sanitation, economic development, and virtually all local services.”

Yoder said it is unlikely the proposition would qualify for the ballot because it is more expensive to gather signatures during the pandemic. 

“We don’t think there will be any extensions of time,” Yoder said, referring to the Gubernatorial Recall election which would have failed if a judge had not granted an additional four months to gather signatures in November 2020.

Yoder also isn’t sure who he will be lobbying on behalf of Tulare County. As of press time, 28 of the 120-member state legislature won’t be back after November due to resignations, seeking higher office and term limits. In 2012, California voters passed Proposition 28, which replaced separate term limits for the California Senate and Assembly with an overall term limit cutting down their state career by two years. State lawmakers used to be able to serve eight years in the Senate and six in the Assembly but now can only serve a total of 12 years between them. At least six Assembly members are already gone, leaving their constituents without representation. By November 2024, half of the legislature is expected to turn over leaving the legislature woefully inexperienced.

“You drive a couple of hours and things change in Sacramento,” Yoder said.

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