Brown's brownest budget cut
State budget cuts signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month will shutter libraries, shorten school years, close state parks and may limit the neediest and sickest Medi-Cal patients to 10 doctor visits a year.
But the cut promising to do the most damage with the least savings is elimination of state subsidies for the 46-year-old Williamson Act, otherwise known as the state Land Conservation Act.
This law gives farmers reduced property taxes in exchange for signing contracts promising to keep their land in agriculture for 20 years.
At its peak, the Williamson Act was costing the state less than $30 million, while keeping bulldozers off 16.5 million acres of open space. The law was passed in the 1960s, before anyone knew of climate change, but it has been the most effective anti-climate change measure anywhere in the world.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't know that when he targeted the act year after year in his proposed budgets. At the time, he didn't know that a 2003 study by Purdue University found that each acre of Indiana farmland pulls about 0.107 tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year.
That's for all types of ag land, including pastures, vineyards, cornfields and orchards.
Farming also produces some greenhouse gases, but even taking that into account, the Purdue figures mean California land protected by the Williamson Act absorbs a minimum of 1.754 million tons of carbon yearly.
After Schwarzenegger heard of these findings, he allowed restoration of Williamson Act funding in the next three state budgets.
But it disappeared last summer, with $10 million worth of funding somehow reappearing in the fall. At the same time, some counties took on the entire funding burden of the pacts, while others refused - which means that the clock is ticking right now on hundreds of thousands of open acres that now figure to become ex-urban sprawl in little more than a decade. A bill allowing the local options to continue passed the Legislature this month.
But now even last autumn's partial restoration of state funding is gone, which will eventually lead to development of millions of farm acres because most farmers cannot afford to pay taxes based on the market value of their developable land.
It's possible Brown wasn't aware of the Purdue study or a similar one in 2009. He warned early on his budget would bring extreme pain, but also said he would lead the state to quit putting problems off onto future generations.
Yet, that's precisely what ending state money for the Williamson Act does. It will be 20 years before much significant development occurs on land that's now protected.
But if climate change scientists are correct, that's about when the kinds of weird weather California has seen this winter will become dangerously extreme. It's also when the current generation of kids aged 10 or younger will be taking on more and more responsibility for their world. It's not too late for Brown and the Legislature to reverse this poor choice. If they're wise, they'll do just that.