Drought legislation is an 'emergency' expansion of government power

By Senator Mike Morrell
Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Also published in The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and other Los Angeles News Group papers

Last month, amidst one of California’s worst droughts on record, the governor and legislative Democrats used growing public concern to push through new laws and regulations that, of all things, will likely result in more water for the environment than for the people of our state.

Approval of this “emergency” drought legislation – over $1 billion in spending – came just a week before the governor ordered first-ever statewide mandatory water reductions in response to the ongoing drought.

With another dry winter behind us, it is appropriate that the drought is at the top of the agenda. We should be looking at all options to ensure every Californian has access to reliable and clean sources of water and doing our part to conserve it.

However, this legislation, which was rushed through the process all within the span of a week, does very little to provide water or immediate relief for people’s lives and livelihoods.

For example, the bulk of the money is slated to be spent on emergency flood prevention and flood control during this season of drought, instead of emergency water storage. Certainly, we want to be prudent and plan ahead. One day the drought will end. But right now, rivers are dry and almost no rain is in the forecast. Therefore, our immediate emergency is water.

Had this debate really been about providing water, we would have focused on the need for more storage – but to no avail. According to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, voters have approved $22 billion for water improvements since 2000, but environmental projects, instead of people, have seen the biggest chunk of that money. The legislature used some of these bond funds in 2008 to establish the Strategic Growth Council with the purpose of looking into “sustainable land use.” For the most part, storage was never given serious consideration. Hence the situation we now find ourselves in.

Another part of this bill that should concern us all is the expansion of government powers, giving the Department of Fish and Wildlife the authority to impose civil penalties, without due process, of up to $8,000 per day for impeding the ability of fish to swim up and down streams. Agencies will effectively be judge, jury, and executioner in reviewing these cases. The move further consolidates more power in the hands of bureaucrats.

Additionally, and perhaps most brazenly with taxpayer money, the governor tacked an unrelated labor agreement onto this package to provide state psychologists with a pay raise. This decision further proves that the overall purpose of the legislation had little to do with an emergency drought or figuring out how to get water to the citizens of California.

As much as the merits of the spending plan were questionable and deserved more scrutiny, the process by which it was pushed through was justification enough to reject it.

Consider this: the $1.1 billion plan was put into print on a Tuesday, reviewed in committee the next day, and voted on by the whole Senate just hours later – effectively an end-run to avoid extensive comments from the public on how their money is being spent.

Series of events like this are a reason I have repeatedly introduced legislation to require any budget-related bills that impact the taxpayer to be in print and online at least 72 hours for public review before the legislature votes on it. This year’s version is Senate Constitutional Amendment 3.

If aid during the drought emergency was the main motive behind this legislation, the governor and Democrat leaders’ attention would have been trained on increasing water supplies or getting serious about alternatives like desalinization.

Rather, they governed by the political adage that a serious crisis should never go to waste – exploiting the public’s justifiable concerns about the drought, consolidating more power at the state level, and catering to groups that care more about the environment than the water needs of the people of our state.