From the start, Jerry Brown's decision to close seventy state parks next year because of California's budget crisis seemed odd. Not only had no governor ever closed a state park in California before, but it became immediately clear that Brown's May 13 announcement wasn't going to have much impact on the state's $9.6 billion deficit. The Democratic governor, who often portrays himself as being environmentally friendly, acknowledged that closing state parks will only save about $11 million next year. In other words, the governor decided to create an instant controversy over a proposal that only addresses 0.1 percent of California's financial problem.
Thanks to excellent reporting by Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News, we've also learned that Brown's plan has many more flaws than its relatively minor effect on the budget — namely, that portions of it appear to be illegal. Late last week, Rogers broke the news that the National Park Service has concluded that Brown cannot close sixteen of the seventy state parks on his list because they received federal funding. "The funding is a grant to the state, like a contract," Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service in Washington, DC, told Rogers. "It says the state makes a commitment to provide these places for public use in perpetuity. To not do that is essentially a breach of that contract."
The contract that California agreed to when it received the federal funds — $287.3 million since 1965 — does not mean that the state will have to return the money if it closes the parks. But it would force the state to open new parks of equal value nearby to the closed ones. Brown's decision also could mean that California will be ineligible for future federal grants, which would be a huge blow to the state park system. In short, Brown's proposal to close parks may end up costing the state as much or more than it would save — which was paltry to begin with.
Among the sixteen state parks slated for closure that received federal money are: Benicia State Recreation Area, Portola Redwoods State Park in San Mateo County, Castle Rock State Park in Santa Clara County, and Twin Lakes State Beach in Santa Cruz.
Rogers, meanwhile, previously reported that the California Coastal Commission has concluded that Brown's plan to close eleven state beaches would violate the state constitution. Why? Because the constitution makes it unlawful for the state to ban members of the public from walking on wet sand up to the "mean high-tide line" on any beach. In short, the beaches belong to the public, and so cannot be closed. "It is becoming more and more clear that closing down state parks is not a simple thing to do, and may not even save very much money," Bill Magevern, director of Sierra Club California, told Rogers.
Among the eleven state beaches that Brown plans to close are: Twin Lakes State Beach in Santa Cruz, Gray Whale Cove in San Mateo County, and Garrapata State Park in Big Sur. Rogers also has reported that closing state parks likely will create logistical nightmares for the state, because many people will use the closed parks and beaches anyway, thereby forcing state park rangers to patrol the parks to keep them safe.
Closing state parks also is wildly unpopular, especially in a down economy when families are searching for inexpensive ways to recreate. Two years ago, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger killed his plan to close 220 state parks after receiving 135,000 angry letters and e-mails from the public — the most he ever received on any issue.
So why is Brown pushing forward with his park-closure plan when it creates so many problems and probably won't save the state much money, if any at all? The governor, so far, won't say. Sounds like it's time for some more letters and e-mails.
What Climate Change?
California regulators acted last week as if climate change doesn't exist, approving a plan to give PG&E's heaviest energy users a 17 percent rate cut, while slightly raising rates for people who have been conserving energy. Yet as ridiculous as the new rules are, they could have been even more absurd. The California Public Utilities Commission had considered a proposal by PG&E to dramatically slash rates for heavy energy users, but ultimately rejected it. Even so, the new rules will provide an incentive for energy wasters to waste even more, thereby likely adding to greenhouse gas emissions in California.
Where to Put the Prisoners?
The decision by the US Supreme Court last week to order California to release more than 30,000 prison inmates because of overcrowding has sparked a new debate over the state's fiscal crisis. Governor Brown wants to transfer tens of thousands of nonviolent inmates from state prisons to county jails, but needs money to do it. The governor argues that the high court ruling makes his tax measure proposals all the more vital. And East Bay county jailers told the Contra Costa Times that they cannot absorb new prisoners without more funds.
The state Assembly overwhelmingly approved a ban on the sale of shark fins in California. Environmental studies show that such bans are the only way to slow the international slaughter of sharks for their highly prized fins. ... Ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle is scheduled to be released from prison in a few weeks after serving an eleven-month sentence for the fatal shooting of train rider Oscar Grant, the Oakland Tribune reported. ... UC Berkeley law school professor Goodwin Liu withdrew his nomination for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after US Senate Republicans refused to allow a vote on it because of his liberal views. ... A bill by Berkeley Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner that would force Amazon.com to collect sales tax from its customers in California is now being backed by major retail chains, including Walmart and Target. ... Oaks Card Club in Emeryville has agreed to pay a $275,000 fine to the state and clean up its act after a raid by state and federal authorities uncovered evidence of drug dealing and loan sharking. ... AC Transit has tabled plans for another cut in service later this year because the agency's finances are in better shape than anticipated. ... And Chevron has downsized its proposal to expand its Richmond refinery and has submitted revised plans to the Richmond City Council after its previous proposal was blocked in the courts by environmental groups.
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