August 1, 2023

Can California Finally Get Critical Infrastructure Built?

At the time of this writing, Gov. Gavin Newsom has submitted several budget bill proposals to the legislature that would streamline critical energy, water and transportation infrastructure projects in California. Following years of waiting on the construction of “approved” projects, the Administration has rightfully come to the conclusion that there are too many unnecessary delays in the permitting and litigation process. Longtime political observers are not surprised by the conversation. Points of contention are routinely raised by stakeholders who want projects to move forward, but nothing really happens to fundamentally improve the regulatory, administrative and legal processes surrounding critical infrastructure development.

What is noteworthy is that the level of frustration over the existing process has caused the Governor to place this in front of the legislature as a high-priority item. Western Growers is part of a very large coalition in support of this package. The coalition includes trade unions and businesses that recognize that the current system of project approvals needs to be more straightforward and guardrails need to be in place to limit the ability for project opponents to indefinitely stall project completions.

How has the infrastructure package landed with members of the California Assembly and Senate? With a loud thud. They don’t like that this is a policy proposal that has been dumped into budget trailer bills. It’s not lost on those of us who advocate in the Capitol that this is the height of hypocrisy. Legislators embrace this practice with open arms all the time. In fact, they recently approved the updated card check bill in exactly this way with nary a concern in the world about the process.

So why am I pontificating to such a degree on this effort by the Administration? Simple. We have to move forward in a deliberate way on a number of projects. The Sites Reservoir in Northern California is a great example. The project is awaiting final permit approvals, and a significant portion of the funding would come from Proposition 1, which was passed in 2014. It’s been almost 10 years and not a shovelful of dirt has been moved on new water storage. This is extraordinarily frustrating given the state’s need for a stable water supply and that the final cost to complete a project only increases over time. California’s very aggressive air quality mandates also highlight the need for the rapid development of energy infrastructure that will be necessary to support the state’s transition to all-electric vehicles. Charging stations need to be permitted and installed all throughout the state. This is going to be a daunting challenge, but it has to happen. A reliable energy grid is essential for California to attain its air quality mandates.

Given the discourse surrounding the overall proposal, it’s very clear that it will have to be significantly amended if it has a chance to pass and be signed by Gov. Newsom. On a positive note, legislators are indicating that they understand that changes need to be made and that they are both willing and looking forward to having this discussion. Perhaps that was the point of the introduction of this sweeping package—it has forced a substantive conversation to happen that will hopefully lead positive change. Better later than never. Goals mean nothing if you don’t take concrete steps to implement them.