Los Angeles Times on reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund:
For more than 50 years, fees on offshore oil and gas drilling have provided billions of dollars for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to protect redwood forests, Joshua trees, beaches, mountains, parks, trails and other natural treasures in California — and similar assets around the nation. But the fund's authorization expired at the end of September, and Congress left for its autumn recess without renewing it.
When it reconvenes in a lame duck session after Veterans Day, Congress should permanently reauthorize the fund and ensure that the fees are used for their intended purposes: to acquire and protect natural areas and to make grants to states for outdoor access and recreation.
It shouldn't be this hard. The fund and the many projects it pays for have wide, bipartisan support. But reauthorization has become a pawn in ideological arguments over the federal government's role in acquiring and holding land.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is perhaps the least widely known, but by no means the least important, of six essential environmental programs created by Congress in the 1960s, largely under the leadership of Stewart Udall, who served as Interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Ironically, the other five pieces of legislation — the Wilderness Act, the Water Quality Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act — may be better known because they have been, at various times, more controversial.
On its adoption in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund allowed the federal government to purchase land using revenue from recreation fees. A later amendment supplemented funding with royalties on oil and gas leases on the outer continental shelf, and those fees have now become the primary revenue source, to the tune of about $40 billion thus far.
Projects include acquisitions of narrow but crucial strips of land adjacent to national parks — for example, a parcel next to Joshua Tree National Park that was slated for real estate development — and access strips to open up existing public areas to recreation. A matching-grant program allows states to develop and enhance urban parkland, creating dozens of parks in Los Angeles County alone, including baseball and soccer fields.
Matching grants also can be used to protect water supplies. Many of the state and local bond measures that Californians have adopted to respond to drought and to provide water security rely on federal matching funds — and many of those matches have come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Federal law allows up to $900 million to be appropriated each year, which is less than the amount of revenue flowing in; as a result, billions of dollars sit in the fund unused. But money doesn't actually come out of the fund until Congress appropriates it. And Congress routinely did, with bipartisan backing and without controversy, until several years ago, when some lawmakers tried to link the fund and its grants to the controversy over federal land ownership and management in Western states.
But even lawmakers who are partial to this so-called sagebrush rebellion recognize that the link between their grievances and the Land and Water Conservation Fund is weak. Just over three years ago, they tabled their philosophical arguments and reached a short-term deal to keep the fund in business. That deal expired on Sept. 30.
The House Committee on Natural Resources approved a reauthorization bill on Sept. 13. Shortly after the current authorization expired, a Senate committee advanced its own version of the proposal. But lawmakers disagreed over details and never got a bill to the floor of either chamber.
The danger now is that a final deal on the fund will fall through the cracks as lawmakers argue over funding for the border wall and other controversial topics. That would be a shame. It ought to be easy to reach final agreement on a bill for which there is bipartisan support. It is low-hanging fruit, and Congress ought to pluck it as soon as it reconvenes.
The Mercury News on the No. 1 priority for Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom:
The election of Gavin Newsom as the state's next governor marks a new era in California politics. Gov. Jerry Brown's prudent management of the state's limited financial resources will be a thing of the past.
If Newsom's time as San Francisco's mayor is any indication, he is more likely than Brown to think and talk big.
But he won't be able to act big without significant changes in state priorities and funding.
For starters, he should dump the costly high-speed rail and Delta twin-tunnels boondoggles that Brown unwisely viewed as his legacy projects. That would stamp Newsom as a common-sense governor who understands financial realities.
Then Newsom should get to the state's biggest challenge: tax reform.
We know, we know. It isn't sexy. It won't garner the sort of headlines his "like-it-or-not" edict on same-sex marriage generated 14 years ago. But fixing California's convoluted tax system would give Newsom his only real chance to pursue and deliver on the promises he repeatedly pushed during the campaign.
Consider that wish list: universal health care, universal preschool, universal prenatal care, free community college tuition for two years, more funding for higher education, cradle-to-career education, building hundreds of thousands of housing units by 2025 to ease the homeless and housing crisis. And that's just for starters.
The projected costs simply don't pencil out without a complete financial overhaul. Especially so during the inevitable, and now overdue, economic downturn. Brown has been warning that a moderate recession would blow a $60 billion hole in California's budget.
The state's tax structure is overly reliant on revenues from income taxes, making the state flush with money during strong economic times and short on funding during downturns. California's additional dependence on its high sales tax only worsens the problem.
How bad is the current tax structure? Nearly three decades ago, personal income tax accounted for 35 percent of the state's general fund revenues. In more recent years, it's closer to double that amount.
Now is the time for serious action on tax reform: A ballot box battle royale on Proposition 13 is looming in 2020 with a proposed measure to tax business and industrial properties based on regular assessments of their value. The prospect should motivate the business community to negotiate an alternative approach that would bring more stability to the state.
Newsom had it right during his campaign that "we need to have a grownup conversation" on tax reform and that "everything would be on the table," including Prop. 13, the infamous 1978 property tax-cutting initiative.
Major tax reform should be his No. 1 priority. It's the only way the state can both secure its financial future and seriously address other issues plaguing the Golden State.
San Francisco Chronicle on the House that Trump built:
While victories in a few key states enabled President Trump's election two years ago despite a popular-vote defeat, his fellow Republicans couldn't be saved by the formidable advantages of incumbency, gerrymandering and geographic distribution. It's a testament to the scope of the Democratic sweep that Republicans could have given up as many as 22 seats — and lost the overall vote by more than twice as much as Trump did — and still held on to the House.
That they didn't is a powerful rebuke indeed.
The GOP's even more substantial advantages in the Senate, where the seats up for election were disproportionately held by Democrats in Trump country, allowed the party to retain a narrow majority in the upper chamber — though Republicans didn't even mount an organized challenge to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was handily re-elected over a fellow Democrat, former state Senate leader Kevin de León.
Midterm elections comprise hundreds of state and regional races, but they have increasingly served as a referendum on the presidency, a trend that Trump has only accelerated. The constitutionally coequal legislative branch has been diminished to de facto subservience to the executive over the past two years. Seventy percent of likely voters had Trump foremost in mind, according to a recent CNN poll, and most of them went against Republicans. Though the president can be counted on to dismiss and distance himself from the unfavorable result, he repeatedly told his endless rallies that he was effectively on the ballot.
He went further, in fact, making the ugly nativism at the core of his politics the particular focus of the last weeks of the campaign — while downplaying the booming economy, conservative judicial appointments and other issues that many of his fellow Republicans, not least House Speaker Paul Ryan, would have preferred to emphasize. He did so despite a rash of attempted bombings targeting his critics and a synagogue massacre linked to far-right conspiracies about the migrant caravans he relentlessly hyped. The president's last-ditch paranoid pitch was exemplified by a false, xenophobic campaign ad so outlandish that it was ultimately pulled by Trump-friendly Fox News.
The nation's verdict on this grim politics was clear, and it couldn't have been rendered without California. Democrats found Republican strongholds in the Central Valley and Southern California suddenly within reach. And a pair of veteran California representatives, Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy and San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi, vied to be first in line for the next speakership.
Pelosi and her fellow Democrats effectively countered Trump's all-consuming cult of personality with a disciplined focus on policy. They benefited from the belated popularity of the Affordable Care Act, passed by a majority that Pelosi corralled nearly a decade ago and then promptly lost in the infamous 2010 "shellacking." The opposition party won't manage anything nearly that ambitious while Republicans hold the White House and Senate; the Tea Party-fueled House ushered in eight years ago illustrated the pitfalls of trying to run the country with half of Congress.
But the House can effectively obstruct Trump's legislative agenda, from weakening the ACA to fortifying the border. Its investigative and oversight powers, meanwhile, will be turned toward the administration and away from its opponents. Instead of helping Trump impede Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe, the new majority will consider whether it justifies impeachment. The president, as a result, may have seen the peak of his power.
Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi is poised to return to the speakership, a plus for San Francisco and a plus for the concept of checks and balances in Washington.