House budget bill has lots for California

A female condor takes to the sky above the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife refuge, north of Fillmore, Calif., on Nov. 6, 2014
A female condor takes to the sky above the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife refuge, north of Fillmore, Calif., on Nov. 6, 2014 TNS

California lawmakers used their power of the purse this year to kill an Obama administration plan for conserving the state’s sprawling foothills.

Capping several years of study and controversy, and facing a funding cutoff, the administration threw in the towel on the proposed California Foothills Legacy Area. The surrender is locked in as part of the $1 trillion omnibus funding bill now set for Senate approval.

The bill includes, among a number of other California provisions, language noting that the Fish and Wildlife Service advised lawmakers on Dec. 3 that no further work would proceed on the plan to preserve some of the state’s foothills through the purchase of conservation easements.

“The Committees on Appropriations expect the service to adhere to this agreement,” the bill’s authors note.

Justin Oldfield, vice president for government relations of the Sacramento-based California Cattlemen’s Association, said in an interview Friday that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision was “a victory” for ranchers.

“We have demonstrated our opposition to the program,” Oldfield said. “Our members are not supportive of it.”

Spread across 1,603 pages, plus more than 1,000 pages of accompanying report language, the omnibus package funds most of the federal government for the next nine months. It’s a grab bag for the Golden State, though constrained by a self-imposed congressional ban on old-fashioned earmarks.

Even with the earmark ban, for instance, the bill includes $22 million for construction of two new buildings at Fresno’s Army Reserve Center and about $39 million for new fuel and other facilities at Naval Air Station Lemoore. The Obama administration had requested the funds.

Similarly, the bill provides the $37 million sought by the administration for California’s Bay-Delta restoration program, as well as separate funding sought for an array of routine water-related projects, including Folsom Dam modifications, Sacramento River bank protection and Isabella Lake dam safety in Kern County.

In addition to dollars, the omnibus package offers rhetorical support for California’s drought-ravaged farmers, advising the Interior Department to “use all of the flexibility and tools available to mitigate the impacts of this drought.”

Lawmakers also used the omnibus to rhetorically encourage “a strategy of providing a combination of additional storage, improved conveyance, and increased efficiencies in the uses of water both for agriculture and potable purposes.”

The omnibus does not, however, include the 20-plus pages of explicit California water language negotiated primarily by House Republicans and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The behind-the-scenes effort to include the language, and its absence, prompted finger-pointing by California lawmakers from both parties that foreshadows more fighting next Congress.

Democratic Rep. Jim Costa called the omission from the omnibus a disappointment. Republican Rep. Devin Nunes blamed Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer for intransigence, and Boxer blamed the Republicans for shutting out Northern California Democrats.

“For months, Republicans refused to let House Democrats have a seat at the table and refused to share their proposal with the public and all the stakeholders,” Boxer said.

The omnibus includes funding for land acquisition in the Southern California Desert, modestly boosts funding for specialty crop pest research, retains $65 million for grants assisting restoration of Pacific salmon populations and orders the Interior Department to make recovery of the California condor a top priority.

Currently, there are about 432 California condors alive, roughly half of them in captivity.

Freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, added Friday that the omnibus “ensures no additional federal dollars for California High Speed Rail.”

Reflecting the current hot topic of U.S. warfighting, the bill includes money to build an unmanned aerial vehicle hangar for drones flying at Fort Irwin in Southern California; for border control, there’s money to build new facilities at the San Ysidro and Calexico West ports-of-entry.

On a more contentious environmental front, the House’s original version included language blocking the Fish and Wildlife Service from completing work on the foothills preservation proposal.

The proposed program would have purchased conservation easements on 200,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills, primarily within Merced, Mariposa, Stanislaus, and Tulare counties. The proposal prompted alarm among private property owners and ranchers, which the Fish and Wildlife Service was unable to allay.