The Legislature began the session this year with five bond proposals aimed at filling state budget gaps for climate spending, flood control and sustainable agriculture programs amid the ongoing revenue deficit.

All but one have stalled in committees, and that bill faces key hurdles ahead.

Assemblymember Lori Wilson of Suisun City is hoping to put a $3.4 billion bond on the 2024 ballot for voters to decide. Unlike the other bond measures, Assembly Bill 408 has changed little since Wilson first presented it in March. She describes the legislation as supporting four pillars of the food system: climate-smart agriculture, farmworker well-being, healthy food access, and regional food infrastructure.

Despite several attempts, it would be the first bond measure seeking to improve climate resiliency on farms and food production infrastructure. The grants would support processing, cooling and storage facilities along with improvements to irrigation canals to boost water efficiency. The bill would also help to expand broadband access and reduce wildfire fuel loads through equipment and infrastructure for grazing.

Overall, nearly $1 billion in the bond would also restore climate-smart programs at CDFA to improve soil health and water-use efficiency, help farmers transition for organic certification, support technical assistance and enable demonstration projects. It would also shore up methane reduction incentives at the Air Resources Board and finance the Department of Pesticide Regulation’s effort to expand integrated pest management practices.

Another $750 million would support farmworkers by addressing housing and utility costs, drinking water issues and personal protective equipment needs. The same amount would fund projects for healthy food access and nutrition security.

Brian Dahle at Food & Ag SummittSen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber

Yet the programs are unlikely to see any of that money anytime soon, even if voters approve the bond next year. A report for the Senate Governance and Finance Committee warns that California “has a distinct problem” with issuing bond money. Of the $156.4 billion in general obligation (GO) bonds that voters have authorized to date, about $24.4 billion has yet to be issued. That includes $4.7 billion from the 2014 water bond, which would help to finance the proposed Sites Reservoir and six other storage projects. According to the committee staff analysis, “projects with voter-approved bond authority, as well as any new GO bond-funded projects, may have to wait to receive the necessary cash.”

AB 408 is also competing with a $25 billion housing bond, two education bonds each worth about $15 billion, and at least three other proposals. The four climate and flood bonds that failed to meet a key deadline to move out of policy committees can still return in January as two-year bills. Gov. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, has also proposed a climate bond for the ballot, though such a measure has yet to show up in print.

Wilson has successfully steered her bill past Republican opposition through several committee hearings and across the Assembly floor. Dozens of progressive environmental, pesticide and sustainable farming groups are backing the bill.

Major agricultural organizations have not supported it. To that end, Republican Senator Brian Dahle of Bieber argued in the Senate hearing last week that AB 408 would not help farmers. Underscoring his fiscal concerns with the measure, Dahle estimated that if all the bond proposals succeed, the Legislature would put about $80 billion worth of bonds on the ballot.

“This is taxpayer-funded help for agriculture,” he said. “If you want to help agriculture, reduce regulations in California.”

As an organic seed farmer in Lassen County, Dahle competes with states where farmers can produce the same products for less cost. He pointed to the state’s strict work hour limits for haulers, higher unemployment taxes, steep energy and fuel prices, and costly emissions standards for tractors.

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“At some point, we have to really look at the core cause of why the cost of agriculture is up,” he said. “The majority of the farms in California are under 500 acres and those people are getting gobbled up by the big corporate farms. We're losing that skill set, we're losing our communities because of it. And this bill is not going to change that.”

Republican Asm. Kelly Seyarto added that farmers in his Riverside County district cannot afford to meet the low purchasing bids that state agencies and local governments offer, which leads to more food products sourced from out of state.

On the other hand, Sen. Maria Elena Durazo of Los Angeles, one the Senate’s strongest labor allies, applauded her colleague for incorporating farmworkers in the lengthy title of the AB 408 Climate-Resilient Farms, Sustainable Healthy Food Access, and Farmworker Protection Bond Act of 2024.

“I wholeheartedly recognize that we’ve put our farmers in a difficult situation by prioritizing certain things as a state, which puts a mandate on them and has made them less competitive in the market,” responded Wilson. “[My bill] helps alleviate that in some ways, because it does help [farmers] deal with some of the mandates. It does give them resources.”

The senators advanced the measure to the Appropriations Committee, where it faces a critical junction when lawmakers return in August following the summer recess. With so many competing bills, the Democratic leadership could quietly stall the measure in Appropriations, a tool often wielded to avoid public infighting over policy proposals. As with many bills at this point in the session, AB 408 could survive Appropriations with dramatic amendments overhauling the bill and setting a new direction or improving its chances for success.

With the other climate and flood bonds shelved for the year, AB 408 now stands to beat them to the ballot box. Wilson has designated it as an urgency measure, which entails immediate action upon the governor’s signature, sending it California Secretary of State Shirley Weber’s office to add to the ballot. Yet the urgency clause also sets a higher bar for approval, requiring a two-thirds vote from Wilson’s colleagues, rather than a simple majority. That would entail more legwork in gathering votes ahead of floor debates.

Adding to those factors, the last month of session often presents new pitfalls and surprises that could help AB 408 either sink or swim.

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