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Monday, March 18 , 2019, 1:32 pm | Fair 67º

 
 
 
 

Joe Armendariz: California Legislature’s Recipe for a Different Kind of Spill

Hypocritical legislators raid oil spill response fund to balance budget, then propose to hike fees to cover their tracks

It’s no secret that, faced with a persistent multibillion-dollar budget deficit, the Legislature has left no stone unturned in its quest for revenues to stem the tide of red ink gushing from Sacramento.

Joe Armendariz
Joe Armendariz

Borrowings from local and regional governments, increased withholding from workers’ paychecks, and the largest tax increase in California history are among the most highly publicized money grabs in the failed quest for a balanced budget.

But here’s one you probably haven’t heard about — a $42 million raid on funds dedicated to preventing and mitigating oil spills.

That’s right. The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration recently decided to lend to the General Fund $40 million from the industry-funded Spill Response Trust Fund, after taking more than $2 million last year from the Spill Prevention Fund.

The recent transfer of funds wiped out 75 percent of the cash resources the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) relies on to respond to oil spills, after last year’s raid deprived OSPR of funds to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

To compound this raid on resources specifically intended to protect our marine environment, elected representatives are now considering — courtesy of AB 1112, sponsored by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael — a 60-percent increase in the assessment that supports the OSPR and its readiness operations.

Not only is this hike far greater than the amount necessary to fund OSPR’s operations going forward, it could well constitute an illegal tax, since it would be used to backfill a transfer of funds that was questionable from the start.

The state Department of Finance is not required to repay the $40 million until 2014, but the Legislature could just extend the loan past then — if it ever pays the money back at all.

Instead, the Legislature should restore the funds immediately. In addition to being the right thing to do, restoration of all of the funds would also eliminate the need for the 60-percent assessment increase under AB 1112 for next year.

Repaying OSPR, instead of raiding it further, would allow the agency to easily operate another year without an assessment increase, and would allow time for a serious look at how to prevent our oil spill prevention and response resources from being plundered again.

As it stands, a 60-percent increase in OSPR funding would present a likely irresistible temptation for the Legislature to once again pick the pocket of our oil spill response agency.

Politicians who call themselves environmentalists should be ashamed of themselves. They profess to be committed to coastal protections but then plunge their hands into the spill-prevention cookie jar when they are unable to balance the budget.

It’s time to stop the hypocrisy. Legislators should put the $42 million back and not tinker with the current funding mechanism until they are ready to adopt strict rules prohibiting the use of OSPR monies for anything but oil spill readiness and response.

If AB 1112 passes as currently written, the most egregious spill California is likely to see in the near future will be the continued flood of dedicated marine protection resources to the state’s General Fund.

— Joe Armendariz is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association and the Santa Barbara Technology & Industry Association, and serves on the Carpinteria City Council.

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