CA Sen. Bob Wieckowski on State’s Proposed Funding of Climate Resilience

Bob Wieckowski

With the latest IPCC report  confirming that the window for meaningful climate action is closing while the impacts of climate change worsen worldwide, and to assess the extent to which Governor Newsom’s proposed 2022-2023 budget reflects the legislature’s climate spending priorities, VX News interviewed California State Senator and Chair of its Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, and Energy, Bob Wieckowski. The Senator underscores the importance of empowering local solutions and offers insights on how the final budget might address wildfire risks, EV deployment, recycling, and other top climate priorities.


Senator Wieckowski, as chair of the California Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, and Energy (Sub2), share with our readers your reaction to the Governor's recent state budget and its alignment with your committee's budget priorities.

Senator Bob Wieckowski: There's a lot to like, and there's a lot not to like about his proposed budget. One of the things that the Senate has done, you saw it last year in our big wildfire prevention package, we’ve really driven the engine on putting in more early money to have these nature-based solutions and give that money to different players, like conservancies and fire councils, to get the deadwood out of the forest.

The Governor’s put in $400 million. Our Senate priority is $1 billion dollars. I expect to report a budget in May that's going to spend at least a billion dollars on thinning forests out. He's got a little bit of money in there for helping that initial capitalization of the timber biofuels market, where you take somebody's waste and make fuel out of it.

In the EV sections, the state of California has put $3.9 billion into EV charging stations and incentives and rebates for people last year. This year, the Governor's put $6.1 billion now, and $10 billion over two years is way more than anybody else is doing in the EV sectors. The program that's most popular is the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. He's has no money in there. We've only got a million electric cars on the road, and our goal is to get to 5 million. We're not going to make it if we don't incentivize the consumer so that it's really easy for them to go out and buy an EV as their next car.

You've written recently on how California is going back to nature to confront climate change. What was your intent in publishing that piece and what is its central message?

You talk to 10 people and you’ll get 10 definitions of what climate adaptation and resiliency are depending on what they want to do. What we found is that the people who study forestry are saying that the state of California should be doing about $2 billion worth of work per year for 10 years in order to get our forests in shape.

In addition to just getting our forests in shape, because of the amount of fuel and deadwood, you have too many trees, and in drought, they're all fighting for the little bit of water. So, we need to do vegetation management and chaparral management. It's also prescribed burns, home hardening, and defensible space. That way, you can live in that beautiful environment, but you can survive fire.

We also have wetland restoration. When these fire crews go in there, they put out the fire, but they destroy creeks and high alpine ponds. We're finding out that with less snowpack, we need to coddle the little bit of snow that we have.

 We want to thin the trees out so that snow is not sitting on the tree limbs. Instead, it's sitting on the ground, creating and expanding these high alpine ponds so that the water stays there. Then, let it trickle down into the creeks and restore those, so it's not flooding in different areas.

 As we get weird weather and experience the effects of climate change, those types of natural land solutions are going to be more important.

It’s the same thing in agriculture. We've got to do more cover crops and less tilling. The land is naturally a carbon sink. It's the ideal circumstance to help reduce the carbon, plus it helps us on the flooding stage and reduces the amount of damage from wildfires.

Elaborate on your priorities and role as Budget Sub2 Chair of the California State Senate? Do you favor incentivizing localized solutions and decentralizing the decision-making process rather than prescribing solutions from the Capitol?

Absolutely. If you look at what we did last year with wildfire, we put $1.5 billion to reduce risk, but we gave money to the Fish and Wildlife Service because they own lands that have forests and can do their own tree trimming. They don't need CalFire to come in and thin their forest.

It’s the same thing with our parks. The Governor's got $760 million into parks, so we can go out and see the parks, but the backlog is a couple billion dollars. There’s the thinning of the forest and maintenance. You have all these counties and all these land trusts in Southern California, the Sierras, and the Bay Area that manage park land.

I don't need to talk to CalFire. They've got fire crews. They can hire the Conservation Corps to go in and help thin out the forest. These programs can make people feel good about their neighborhood when they go home each night. We've got counties that have their own programs too. We're finding out CalFire doesn't have that many people. You hire these crews to do the work.

What we're finding is if we get the money into their hands, they've already got projects that they'd like to fund. They just don't have the dough. I'm looking forward to the oversight on that. In three weeks I am going to ask CalFire about the progress that they've made. We're supposed to hold them accountable for the money that we give out.

I'm going to do the same thing with the conservancies and say, “We gave you this money, what did you do? Now what do you need? Do you have the workforce that could do it?”

Consistent with your approach, in a recent TPR  interview with Joe Edmiston of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, he addresses the increasing un-insurability of homes built and rebuilt in predictable wildfire corridors and asks the question if California should consider a state guaranteed policy of last resort or consider incentives for homeowners to relocate. What's the current legislative appetite for either approach?

I think to ask the question about relocation is important because 100 years ago, we didn't have so many people living in the WUI (wildland urban interface). We have ghost towns where people can no longer get fresh well water, and so they deserted the area. They didn't just stay there and ask the state to bail them out or bring resources.

I'm not saying that everybody has to test the lead, but a lot of local counties and municipalities have made land use decisions to put a lot of people in the WUI. I must admit, it is lovely being in Malibu and Topanga Canyon, but it's ready to go up in flames.

We have a program for the insurance of last resort. The problem is it's woefully underfunded, and people are not getting insurance. The challenge is that we don't want to create the outer islands that they have in North Carolina and South Carolina where every year the hurricane comes, and every year we build a brand new house.

We want to do those defensible space projects and the home hardening to reduce the fire, so it's not an inferno when it goes there. It’s about finding that happy medium. You have some insurance for people, but with conditions it's got to be different. You can't live in a house covered with trees anymore. That will be a big discussion, and I don't know if we get an answer this year.

Address the recent revelation and unexpected budget surplus at CalRecycle. What's the essence of the problem there?

Part of it is an accounting problem that CalRecycle has. They continually make projections that the fund is running out of money. In the work that I've done in recycling, you just can't find places that will take back your beverages. In Santa Monica, they closed the recycling center; there's no place to bring your bottles. Alameda County has a population of 1.8 million and has three recycling centers. Those ratios are bad.

They don't have a chief financial officer at CalRecycle. If you had a Chief Financial Officer, they would look at these figures and say, “Oh my God, where is this money?” They have another problem with grocery stores. If the store doesn't take back bottles, they're supposed to be paying $100 a day. They don't have anybody that collects that money. There's one store in Chico that owes $137,000 in back fees. How many more stores are doing that?

In the budget, the governor says that there's $3 million dollars had they taken from these fines at the grocery stores. That's like 300 stores. What are all the rest of the stores doing? They're not taking back the bottles.

I'm going to have CalRecycle at a hearing, and I'm going to continue with the hard questions on who's managing these dollars. How do you just misplace $100 million worth of nickels?

I've got a bill to boot the whole program and have the manufacturers run it as people like to say, ‘like you run a business.’ You pay the manufacturers a fee for handling it, but give consumers back their dimes and nickels. California is going to be proud of our stewardship.

As a State Senate Budget Sub2 Chair, what’s your read of the net metering debate in California: the battle between the providers and the electric utility industry over price of rooftop solar?

Like we've done with so many things, we punted it long ago to the jurisdiction of Cal Public Utilities Commission. We gave up our authority to regulate in this area/ We do have the ability to give more incentives or replace the incentives to consumers that would buy solar energy, but we sort of dropped off that because the price is so low and so much of the industry has figured out ways that you provide the house and they put the system in. Then, it’s part of your electric bill, you don't even pay for it.

I think they backed off and that they're going to reconsider it. If I were a betting man, which I'm not, I think they're going to modify the proposal that they have. I have solar on my house, and I have the price that was back in my grandfather's day. I think modifying that so it's more consistent with market rate value makes sense. Folks with solar should be paying something for the electric line update, even if it's 56 bucks a month.

How is your budget committee addressing building decarbonization and the political push to incentivize the replacement of gas appliances?

We can put some money into the program to convert them, and we have different programs on weatherization. We have a fireplace replacement program, so we can fund those. We have laws now that say all new construction has to be all electric, so we're moving away from the gas stove.

Evidently, Julia Child liked cooking on electric, so that folklore that cooks like to work cook on gas is not true.

The challenge that we're going to have is the replacement. What incentives we can get homeowners to take out their gas to put in to put in electric. It's easier on hot water heaters to move away from gas. We could put more cash in these programs so that it's publicized.

To have people convert them is a consumer choice. We're going to have to really put some money on the table in order to get people in a meaningful way to make a change. They're just not going to otherwise, but that's just my own call on it.

What does the rejection by the Assembly Democrats last month of AB 854, which would have limited Ellis Act evictions by real estate speculators, reveal about what the impact of the legislature’s statewide, one-size-fits-all up-zoning of R1 neighborhoods is having on the promised production of more affordable housing?

We'll have to digest 854. There were a lot of people that when they heard about the workaround on the Ellis Act, they were surprised by that. Assemblymember Lee made a spot at the issue. I don't think it's going to go away because I think people are concerned. It seems like that was not part of the grand bargain when they made it.

Part of the challenge is that we've got all this money. We put $9 billion into the budget last year for affordable housing, and I was looking at the cap and trade numbers of what we have just this year with the Governor's budget. It is $250 million.

A lot of people are asking, if every year we put in a couple billion dollars, where's the housing? Where's the product? Those answers will help with a lot of our challenges that we have with restrictions on properties.

I like to think of myself as the ADU King. Now we're producing 40,000 to 50,000 units of accessory dwelling units in California because we're starting to get the financing part right.

Those type of products and that increase in density in a single family residential setting will take some pressure off these other variables that we have to keep affordable housing. ADUs, by design, are affordable. The data that just came out that they're 75% of what the market rate is. They're less than what people are paying for apartments. My hope is that those types of construction with prefab and everything mixed up, that takes some pressure off of the dwindling supply of affordable housing.

Lastly Senator, most observers of the state’s budget process know and respect your expertise and integrity. Given term limits, however, experienced and trusted legislators  like yourself and Majority Leader Hertzberg are or will be shortly leaving the Senate. Is there a great back-bench?

I remember in 2015 when I first went to my first COP in Paris. I was with Kevin de Leon, who was President Pro Tempore, Ricardo Lara, and Fran Pavley. I was the kid going with my climate adaptation bill that we just had done and it hadn't come into law.

I've worked hard on it, though. I spend six years or eight years in the Senate, and I’ve really taken the time to educate myself more about the nuances and the details of the programs, what the governor proposes in the budget, what the intellectual community is saying about these programs, and trying to advise my colleagues.

 You don’t win all the time, but that's our charge. It’s to give these comparisons to folks so that our colleagues have more tools to make the decisions. Everybody that gets elected has different interests that they're worried about. There are people passionate about homelessness or climate, even specific things like methane.

I hope that my enthusiasm and personality is contagious. Similar to what Fran Pavley and Ricardo and Kevin said to me, I remind other members as I get ready to leave that it's on their shoulders now. They have a responsibility to this institution and to the state of California. People are expecting them to be knowledgeable and an authority on the need for us to move quickly and move strongly.


“(P)eople who study forestry are saying that the state of California should be doing about $2 billion worth of work per year for 10 years in order to get our forests in shape...we (also) need to do vegetation management and chaparral management... also prescribed burns, home hardening, and defensible space. That way, you can live in that beautiful environment, but you can survive fire."—CA Sen. Bob Wieckowski