State lawmakers announced on Monday that they would be requesting a joint Senate Budget Committee oversight hearing with the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee and the Environmental Quality Committee to look over wildfires and wildfire reduction programs within the state.
The proposed oversight committee, spearheaded by Senator Jim Nielsen (R-Red Bluff), would specifically look into investigations from last week that found that Governor Gavin Newsom had misled the public about California’s wildlife prevention programs and had overinflated figures.
According to the joint CapRadio and NPR investigation unveiled last week, Governor Newsom was found to have overstated the number of areas treated with fuel breaks and prescribed burns by 690%. Governor Newsom claimed that, due to an executive order of his, 35 of his priority projects had treated over 90,000 acres with wildfire prevention treatments. However, data from the state only showed 11,399 acres treated.
And, while wildfire prevention jumped up in 2019, likely as a result of the devastating 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people in the town of Paradise, Cal Fire wildfire fuel reduction statistics show output dropping to half the 2018 levels in 2020 – despite 2020 being the largest wildfire season on record. However, the reduction itself was largely due to Newsom cutting $150 million from Cal Fire’s wildfire prevention budget in response to the $54.3 billion budget deficit last year.
After the investigation was revealed, many lawmakers expressed shock over the Governor misleading the public. The outrage continued on over the weekend, culminating in Senator Nielsen’s joint Senate Budget Committee oversight hearing request.
“This oversight hearing request is in to response to a recent investigation by CapRadio and NPR California Newsroom that found that Governor Newsom ‘mislead the public’ about the state’s wildfire prevention efforts ahead of California’s worst wildfire season in history,” said Sen. Nielsen in a statement on Monday.
In a letter given to Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Nielsen further laid out his reasoning for the committee.
“Oversight is necessary after the investigation revealed that Governor Newsom overstated the amount of wildfire prevention work completed by his administration, falsely claiming that the land area treated was nearly eight times greater than the correct number,” added Nielsen in his letter. “The report also cited the refusal by the Governor’s office to respond to the findings despite multiple requests. Meanwhile, current drought conditions have amplified California’s wildfire risk, leading to an earlier fire season already impacting communities statewide.
“Many Senators and their constituents have been greatly affected by devastating wildfires. Therefore, it is critical that the Legislature quickly conclude budget deliberations to support current and future wildfire prevention strategies. We believe an oversight hearing is the fastest way to obtain accurate, up-to-date information from the Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE) regarding wildfire resiliency spending. Further, Legislators and the public must understand the current funding and policy implications of the Governor’s misleading claims to provide the appropriate level of resources to continue preparing for future wildfire seasons.
“In addition, we believe the public would be well-served in the longer term by an independent audit to understand whether CAL FIRE spends its funds most cost-effectively. While completing an audit would take too long to inform the 2021-22 wildfire budget, it would provide much-needed accountability over this critical state operation. Accordingly, we will be seeking authorization for an audit through separate channels.”
A Senate investigation may hurt Newsom’s popularity only months before the recall election
While Nielsen’s request is likely to be supported by Republican lawmakers in California, as well as more moderate Democrats and Democrats in areas with high wildfire risk, many did not give any indication how they would view the request on Monday.
“For many in the Assembly and Senate, there’s a lot of good and bad in such a request,” explained “Dana,” a State Capitol staffer, to the Globe on Monday. “You know, questioning why wildfire funds were cut, even in the pandemic year, will get many in the public to side with you, even in larger cities due to the wildfire risk around them. Most Californians don’t want to be known as the wildfire state, so questioning why it seems like the opposite is being pushed for will get support.”
“At the same time, the committee would have to really look into Newsom, and you know Republicans are not going to take it easy on him. And because of the recall, with Newsom now finally gaining ground again after the rough fall and winter on his popularity last year, many don’t want to support a forum in which all those gains could be decimated. Especially if the national news picks up the story like with Gray Davis and the energy crisis about 20 years ago.”
“This puts many lawmakers in a tough spot. The gas tax, the state budget, an extended eviction moratorium, the EDD fraud cases, and lingering resentment from last year, like through the French Laundry thing and his lockdowns, are all weighing on Newsom still. If one of the powder kegs really blows up, it could really hurt Newsom’s chances. Dems don’t want to add another.
“We’ll see where this goes.”
Senator Nielsen is expected to get a response to his request soon.