SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Their state budgets flush with cash, Democratic and Republican governors alike want to spend some of the windfall on projects aimed at slowing climate change and guarding against its consequences, from floods and wildfires to dirty air.
Democratic governors such as California’s Gavin Newsom and Washington’s Jay Inslee have been clear about their plans to boost spending on climate-related projects, including expanding access to electric vehicles and creating more storage for clean energies such as solar. Newsom deemed climate change one of five "existential threats" facing the nation’s most populous state when he rolled out his proposed state budget this past week.
In Republican-led states, governors want to protect communities from natural disasters and drought, even as many of them won’t link such spending to global warming.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey this past week pitched $1 billion for water infrastructure as drought grips the Western U.S., shriveling water supplies for cities and farms. Idaho Gov. Brad Little, who has acknowledged climate change’s role in worsening wildfires, proposed $150 million for five years’ worth of fire-fighting costs, plus more for new fire personnel. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster called on lawmakers to spend $300 million in federal money for, among other things, protecting the state’s coastline against flooding, erosion and storm damage.
"I can think of no more meritorious use of taxpayer funds than to protect these pristine properties for future generations of South Carolinians," he said as he presented his proposed state budget, which also includes $17 million to use in the aftermath of hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Governors’ proposals are just the first step in budget negotiations, and they’ll have to work with state lawmakers on the final details. Many governors will issue their plans in the coming weeks, with some already telegraphing their priorities. New York’s Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, used her state of the state address to call for $500 million in spending on offshore wind projects.
This year’s discussions on how to spend taxpayers’ money comes not only as many states are seeing massive budget surpluses, but also as the negative effects of changing weather patterns are becoming ever harder to ignore. As drought continued in much of the West, an unseasonable December wildfire ripped through a Colorado neighborhood near Boulder. Deadly off-season tornados ravaged Kentucky, and several hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast. Late summer temperatures soared to sweltering, record-breaking levels in the Pacific Northwest.
"The climate crisis is not an abstraction. It is something that I and every governor in the United States, almost on a weekly basis, have to deal with," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said this past week.
Meanwhile, Democratic President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion package of social and environmental initiatives is stalled in Congress, leaving the prospect of more federal money to fight climate change uncertain. States, mostly led by Democrats, took on a larger role advancing climate policies during former Republican President Donald Trump’s time in office.
Most states are awash in money as tax collections have exceeded expectations because of strong consumer spending and rising prices, which together have bolstered sales tax revenue. On top of that, states are taking in billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief and are preparing for a big boost in federal infrastructure money after Congress passed a $1 trillion public works bill in November. Beyond increasing climate spending, states are looking to the windfall to pad their reserves, cut taxes, boost funding for education and increase affordable housing.
California is home to the most ambitious climate spending, with Newsom calling for $22 billion for various projects spread over the next five years. The bulk of that would go to transportation projects such as electrifying school buses and expanding vehicle charging stations into disadvantaged communities. He also proposed another $2 billion for clean energy development and storage.
California-based companies that work to address climate change and develop green technologies could be eligible for tax credits. Through programs to build more housing in downtown corridors and make communities more walkable, Newsom threaded his efforts to tackle climate change throughout his budget proposal.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and legislative leaders promised increased investments related to wildfires, such as adding fire response equipment and training for firefighters, after last month’s Boulder County wildfire. The Democratic governor has requested about $75 million for such efforts, and the Democratic-led Legislature has signaled it wants more.
Polis also wants to spend $425 million on electrifying bus and truck fleets, aerial and ground monitoring of oil and gas emissions, and more.
"From extreme floods to megafires to seemingly never-ending ozone alerts, our state’s long-term health is on the line. ... We have to do everything in our power to make sure this is not the new normal," Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has asked the state legislature to fund the creation of a "climate change bureau," with a 15-member staff and $2.5 million initial budget.
It would implement pollution standards for vehicles and push the state’s economy toward a point where just as much carbon is being taken out of the atmosphere as is being emitted. Her administration has offered limited details on the proposal.
Even as they prioritize climate initiatives, many governors are balancing those plans with a need to support their state’s current economy as it transitions away from a dependence on fossil fuels. In New Mexico, the output of oil and natural gas has surged to an all-time high under Lujan Grisham’s administration. At least one-fourth of the state’s general fund budget can be traced to income from the oil and natural gas industries – underwriting public education, health care and other services.
In some states, it’s lawmakers who are driving climate spending. Democrats who control Maryland’s legislature are pushing a climate change measure that would reduce methane emissions, modernize the electric grid and invest in green technology.
The package, subject to negotiations, would accelerate the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The current plan is to cut emissions by 40% of 2006 levels by 2030. The Democrats’ new plans is to raise that emissions reduction to 60%.
They also want to set a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045, meaning at least as much carbon is being removed from the atmosphere as what’s being emitted. Money for climate programs could come from the state’s $4.6 billion budget surplus and federal infrastructure funding.
Maryland Democrats have enough members to override any vetoes by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, though he has previously supported efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
State Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Democrat, said advancing climate policy has political merits, particularly in the state that is home to Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary. All Maryland state lawmakers are up for re-election this year, as are about two-thirds of governors across the U.S.
"I think legislators want to be able to run on something, and people should be accountable," Pinsky said. "Do they support the environment and this kind of bold action or not?"
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