Conservatives turn to budgets to protect against climate change

SAcramento, Calif. (Associated Press) – With their state budgets full of cash, Democratic and Republican governors alike want to spend some of the windfall on projects aimed at slowing climate change and protecting against its consequences, from floods and wildfires to polluted air.

Democratic state governors, such as Gavin Newsom of California and Jay Inslee of Washington, have been clear about their plans to increase spending on climate-related projects, including expanding access to electric vehicles and creating more storage for clean energy such as solar power. Newsom called climate change one of the five “existential threats” facing the nation’s most populous state when he presented his proposed budget last week.

In Republican-led states, governors want to protect communities from natural disasters and droughts, and many do not even associate such spending with global warming.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey last week provided $1 billion for water infrastructure as drought grips the western United States, dwindling water supplies for cities and farms. Idaho Governor Brad Little, who has acknowledged the role of climate change in exacerbating wildfires, has proposed $150 million to cover firefighting costs for five years, plus more for new firefighters. In South Carolina, Governor Henry McMaster called on lawmakers to spend $300 million in federal money, among other things, to protect the state’s coast from flooding, erosion and storm damage.

“I can think of using taxpayer money more than to protect this pristine property for future generations of South Carolina residents,” he said while presenting the state’s proposed budget, which also includes $17 million to be used in the wake of hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The governors’ proposals are only the first step in budget negotiations, and they will have to work with state lawmakers on the final details. Many governors will release their plans in the coming weeks, with some already communicating their priorities. New York Governor Cathy Hochhol, a Democrat, used her state of the state address to demand $500 million to spend on offshore wind projects.

This year’s discussions about how to spend taxpayer money come not only because many countries are experiencing huge budget surpluses, but also as the negative effects of changing weather patterns have become difficult to ignore. With drought still continuing across much of the West, an unusual wildfire broke out in December in a Colorado neighborhood near Boulder. Killer off-season hurricanes swept Kentucky, and several hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast. Late summer temperatures soared to record-breaking extremes in the Pacific Northwest.

“The climate crisis is not an abstraction. It is something that I and every governor in the United States have to deal with, on an almost weekly basis,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said last week.

Meanwhile, Democratic President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion package of social and environmental initiatives is stalled in Congress, leaving the prospect of increasing federal funds to combat climate change uncertain. States, led mostly by Democrats, took a greater role in promoting climate policies during former Republican President Donald Trump’s tenure in office.

Most states are awash with money as tax collections exceed expectations due to strong consumer spending and price hikes, which together boost sales tax revenue. On top of that, states are benefiting from billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief and preparing for a significant increase in federal infrastructure funds after Congress passed the $1 trillion Public Works Act in November. Besides increasing climate spending, nations are looking to windfall gains to mobilize their reserves, cut taxes, boost funding for education and increase affordable housing.

California is home to the most ambitious climate spending, with Newsom claiming $22 billion for various projects spread over the next five years. The bulk of that will go to transportation projects such as the electrification of school buses and the expansion of vehicle charging stations in underserved communities. He also proposed another $2 billion for clean energy development and storage.

California-based companies working to tackle climate change and develop green technologies may be eligible for tax credits. Through programs to build more housing in downtown lanes and make communities more walkable, Newsom has bundled his efforts to tackle climate change throughout the proposed budget.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis and legislative leaders promised to ramp up wildfire-related investments, such as adding fire response equipment and training for firefighters, after the Boulder County wildfires last month. The Democratic governor has requested about $75 million for such efforts, and the Democratic-led legislature has indicated it wants more.

Polis also wants to spend $425 million on electrification of bus and truck fleets, air and ground monitoring of oil and gas emissions, and more.

“From extreme flooding to massive fires to seemingly endless ozone alerts, the long-term health of our state is at stake. We have to do everything we can to make sure that this is the case,” said Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Feinberg. Not the new normal.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Logan Grisham, a Democrat, has asked the state legislature to fund the creation of a “climate change office,” with 15 employees and an initial budget of $2.5 million.

It would apply pollution standards for vehicles and push the state’s economy toward a point where as much carbon is being taken out of the atmosphere as it is being emitted. Its management provided limited details about the proposal.

Even as they prioritize climate initiatives, many governors are balancing those plans with the need to support their state’s current economy as it transitions away from dependence on fossil fuels. In New Mexico, oil and natural gas production rose to an all-time high under the Logan Gresham administration. At least a quarter of the state general fund budget can be traced back to income from the oil and natural gas industries – ensuring public education, health care and other services.

In some states, lawmakers are driving climate spending. Democrats who control the Maryland legislature are calling for climate change measures that would reduce methane emissions, modernize the electric grid and invest in green technology.

The package, which is subject to negotiations, will speed up the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The current plan is to cut emissions by 40% from 2006 levels by 2030. The new Democrats’ plans are to raise this emissions limit to 60%.

They also want to set a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045, which means at least as much carbon is removed from the atmosphere as what is being emitted. The money for climate programs could come from the $4.6 billion state budget surplus and federal infrastructure funding.

Maryland Democrats have enough members to override any veto by Republican Governor Larry Hogan, even though he has previously supported efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Developing climate policy has political advantages, Democratic Senator Paul Pinsky said, particularly in a state that includes the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary. All of Maryland’s legislators are preparing for re-election this year, as are about two-thirds of state governors across the United States.

“I think lawmakers want to be able to act on something, and people should be held accountable,” Pinsky said. “Do they support the environment and this kind of bold action or not?”

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