California Legislature Considers $4.2 Billion Bond to Prepare for Climate Change

The 2018 Camp Fire left thousands of homes destroyed in California.

The 2018 Camp Fire left thousands of homes destroyed in California. Shutterstock


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STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | Illinois won’t help municipalities collect red-light camera ticket fines anymore … Bill in Pennsylvania would shrink the legislature … Virginia governor backs bill to make election day a holiday.

Lawmakers in California are considering a proposal for a $4.2 billion bond to be used to prepare for natural disasters caused by climate change. In recent years, wildfires have caused billions in damage in the state, destroyed thousands of homes and forced Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy. The bill to authorize the bond would have to pass one of the state’s two legislative chambers by the end of January because it is a leftover proposal from the last session. The money would mainly be used to reduce wildfire risks, but would also enhance green infrastructure projects, like the installation of solar batteries to power nursing homes and hospitals when electric utilities have to implement blackouts. Funding would also be allocated to help coastal communities prepare for sea level rise and increase the state’s fresh water supplies. Democratic state Sen. Henry Stern said that the state has to be more forward-thinking. “We've been really good about investing in suppression—in other words, firefighters and helicopters. We haven’t done that good of a job in prevention,” Stern said. If the bond passes the legislature, California voters also will have to approve the borrowing proposal. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a Democrat, said that she thinks the public will approve the measure if the benefits are laid out clearly. “I think if members of the public know that this money is going to issues around climate change, they care about that,” Atkins said. Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican whose district includes the town of Paradise, which was destroyed by the 2018 Camp Fire and has yet to be rebuilt, is more skeptical. "There are existing dollars in government that I think we could just better target,” he said. [Associated Press]

RED LIGHT CAMERAS | Illinois Comptroller Susan Mendoza said that the state agency responsible for debt collection will no longer help municipalities collect fines related to red light camera tickets. The announcement comes after a federal investigation into SafeSpeed, one of the biggest red light contractors in the Chicago suburbs, which collect millions of dollars in revenue through the tickets. Multiple government officials allegedly served as consultants to the company and received commissions on the red light cameras installed in their towns. “This kind of arrangement stinks—it’s plain rotten. It exploits taxpayers and especially those who struggle to pay the fines imposed, often the working poor and communities of color. We can’t continue the practice of municipal employees directly pocketing cash from contracts they arrange,” Mendoza said. SafeSpeed declined to comment on the issue, but last year, founder Nikki Zollar said the company does business "ethically and with integrity." Municipalities have relied on the comptroller’s office to use methods like withholding state income tax returns in order to get residents to pay their ticket debt; in the absence of that assistance, they may turn to private debt collectors. [Chicago Tribune; Chicago Sun-Times; Crain’s Chicago Business]

SHRINK THE LEGISLATURE? | A state representative in Pennsylvania introduced legislation that would cut the number of legislative districts in the state from 203 to 151. The change would require amending the state constitution, but Rep. Valerie Gaydos, a Republican, said the result would be worth it. “Reducing the number of seats in the House of Representatives will not only provide a significant cost savings to taxpayers, but also streamline the legislative process and make it easier for lawmakers to reach consensus,” Gaydos said. Pennsylvania has the second-largest state legislature in the country. Similar bills to cut the number of legislators have failed in the past two sessions. To amend the constitution, identical versions of the bill would need to pass the General Assembly in two successive legislative sessions, and then Pennsylvania voters would have to approve a referendum. [TribLive; Butler Eagle]

ELECTION HOLIDAY | Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced two legislative proposals that would expand voting access in the state. The first would allow early voting up to 45 days before an election, and the other would make election day a state holiday. The state would maintain the same number of state holidays by repealing Lee-Jackson Day, which honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Some Virginia cities, including Richmond and Charlottesville, have stopped observing the holiday because they said it glorifies slaveholders. A similar bill to remove the holiday and replace it with an election day holiday was introduced last year and failed in the state Senate. Sen. Richard Black, a Republican voiced concerns about that bill. “I have unease about the movement to erasing history. Maybe next time, it’ll be Martin Luther King,” he said. Democrats took control of both legislative bodies in Virginia at the start of 2020, which has given Northam hope that the bill can pass this time. “Voting is a fundamental right. But in a state that once put up tremendous barriers to voting, too many people are still unable to participate meaningfully in our democracy. By making it easier—not harder—to vote, these proposals will ensure we are building a government that is truly representative of the people we serve. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to pass these important measures into law,” Northam said. [WSET; WHSV]

GOVERNOR SALARY | A state commission tasked with evaluating the compensation for Maine’s governor concluded that the salary for the position should increase by 185%, from $70,000 to $130,000. The governor’s salary in Maine is one of the lowest in the nation, the commission’s report noted. "The commission finds that the Maine governor's salary is embarrassingly low, suggesting a disrespect for the position and making Maine an outlier from the rest of the country," the report read. The salary has not been changed since   1987. Recent attempts to raise the governor's pay have failed, including a 2019 bill that would have raised it to $150,000 starting in 2023. Former judge Vendean Vafiades, who chairs the commission, said that a raise is overdue.“I believe that the recommendation of the governor’s salary of $130,000 is sound, is reasonable, is defensible,” she said. The commission also recommended making “meaningful change[s]” to the salaries of state lawmakers, increasing the two-year stipend from $25,000 to $32,000, and to the salaries of district court judges, increasing their annual pay from $133,000 to $150,000.[New Center Maine; Maine Public Radio]

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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