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A conversation with California’s Resources Secretary

John Laird is sitting in an armchair in his austere 13th floor office in the state Resources Building on O and 9th Streets. The former chair of the Assembly Budget committee is in shirt sleeves buttoned at the wrist. He gestures broadly while talking.

There are posters of parks on the walls, a hard hat from the state firefighters on a credenza, a row of baseball caps in the otherwise empty bookcase. His desk is ordered but full.
Named secretary on Jan. 5 – one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s first appointments – the 61-year-old Santa Rosa native touched many of the issues he now is responsible for overseeing during his six-year tenure in the Assembly: state parks, the Sierra Conservancy, renewable energy, the future of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The former aide to East Bay Rep. Jerry Waldie, Santa Cruz City Council member, director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project and Cabrillo College Board trustee talks with Capitol Weekly about his current job and some of its unique challenges.

Capitol Weekly: So how big is the Resources agency?
John Laird: There’s over 17,000 employees. It’s got a $14 billion budget and 25 departments, boards and commissions.

What’s the ratio of special fund to general fund?
Of the $14 billion, $1 billion is general fund and the rest is special fund or outside revenue. The two biggest general fund parts of the budget are (the Department of) Parks (and recreation) and Calfire (the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). Resources relies on bonds for a lot of its efforts. Flood control. Water infrastructure. Parks. Acquisition of parkland by local governments. Habitat restoration.

Is it difficult going from being a legislator to running such a big agency?
I spent most of my career being an administrator in one way or another, both as a non-profit director and a local government administrator. Even when you’re a mayor – and that’s elected of course – there’s a lot of administrative pieces to the job.

Where does the public touch your agency the most?
Mostly in rural California. Resources is in many ways the ambassador of the state to rural California whether it’s Fish and Game or Parks, Water. And in urban areas if you have water tap you interact with the agency.

Where would the average Californian – whatever that is – come into contact with the agency?
In the broadest sense, the “average” Californian is probably either going to the park or fishing. The Energy Commission also interacts with a lot of Californians whether you’re urban or not in terms of alternate energy and whatever comes with that. Building standards. The Energy Saver program.

What does the current occupant of the corner office say he would like you to do as resources secretary?
For once I’m being circumspect. The governor wants to make sure the state’s goal of one-third of its energy from renewables is met. He wants to make sure that the water system is upgraded to modern times and to take into account fish and habitat as they relate to water supply. He’s committed to the dual goals of the Delta – determine water reliability for those who depend on the Delta and restore the habitat as fast as we can.  

So is it going to be on your watch when California gets that pesky water thing solved?
It’s one place where we hit the ground running. We’re trying to have a clear plan and process for restoring fish habitat in the Delta. That’s part of our meeting those dual goals the Legislature gave us in 2009 – water reliability and habitat restoration.

The real difference between the Schwarzenegger and Brown administrations is the fact that there’s no loyalty oath to sign in order to participate in developing the state’s water plan and the meetings are public and transparent and there are groups of stakeholders and people with an interest in water with widely different perspectives at the table trying to solve the key issues.

Because there’s water in the reservoirs this year are there more cards in your hand to do something meaningful on water?
Water is the Rubik’s Cube of public policy. The thing that probably works to our advantage to get towards some agreement is, for the first time in a long time, the status quo in the Delta benefits no one. The fish populations are crashing. Judges were turning off the exports. So there’s almost no one that isn’t dissatisfied with what’s going on in the Delta.
And the two dual goals are somewhat elegant in that sense. I’m always fond of saying everybody is firmly committed to one of the two goals.

Where do you start?
There’s nothing easy. There is the bay Delta Conservation Plan process, of course. For 20 years there have been all the lawsuits on everything. Sue on smelt. Sue on salmon. Sue on striped bass. What the Delta Plan process does is say, ‘We’re going to look at it all together, see how it fits and try to address the whole thing.’

So we’ve created something like 12 stakeholders committees on a number of issues: What to do with the Yolo Bypass, what to do with the South Delta, what to do about salinity, what’s the governance and finance of any water project going forward.

And we’re asking the members of those committees, ‘What do you want? What fixes your concerns?’ The members are so used to an adversarial relationship with the state for so long, they’re not used to being asked. It can be tough trying to orient people to thinking we’re going to actually do something at some point.

When do they have to finish meeting and offer recommendations?
The goal is to try and get it done by the end of the year.

Then what happens?
If they come to some conclusions then those solved problems will be included in the Bay Conservation Development plan.
Those have been kinda vexing issues for any number of decades.

Yes. Exactly. But now there are people at the table talking about them, not the government trying to impose a solution. Now, if they can’t come to a decision we have to make the decision on how to move forward. So we’re giving everybody a change to come to agreement among themselves, which makes everything easier for everybody.

What’s the worst thing about this job?
My worst nightmare is closing parks. It’s especially difficult for me as the guy who made the proposal in the Legislature to raise the vehicle license fee to have a steady revenue stream for parks and couldn’t get the two-thirds needed. Then it went to the people on the ballot and lost. And now I’m the one who has to do the closing.

Why did voters not go for that? It seemed like a pretty good deal all around for, what, 18 bucks?
One factor was the economy. It was a really tough time to ask voters that question. That was the overriding thing. And I think the public was concerned that the money wouldn’t necessarily go to parks. They set aside this money and then the Legislature immediately raids it. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before.

Is there any way to keep them open? I mean closing the former Governor’s Mansion?
Statutory authority exists now for cities and counties to run state parks, but not a general statutory authority for non-profits to do it. (A bill on Gov. Brown’s desk by Assemblyman Jared) Huffman would allow up to 20 non-profits to partner for up to 20 parks.

They’d be more likely to do it?
Some non-profits
have capacity cities and counties wouldn’t. Non-profits could also organize around specific parks, establishing the upkeep and improvement as the non-profit’s purpose.

The money can’t be found? What is it, something like $22 million?
There’s been a 37 percent reduction in the General Fund to parks in recent years. The only way to find the revenue is to shift it to parks from something else other than parks and in the current state budget climate that’s very hard.

Those on the list of 70 to be closed…
 …Are the least visited and generate the least revenue.

Are you going to be the Resources Secretary for a while or is there a (state) Senate seat in your near-term future?
I would hope to be the resources secretary for a while.

OK so what longer-term goals do you and the governor have?
Let me say, Number One, whatever the governor sets, as a priority is the Resources Agency’s priority. Over the course of the long term, a sustainable way to deal with state parks, a way to take the marine protection program to stability and get it where it needs to be going forward. Trying to help everybody that’s working to get to the 33 percent renewable goal and trying to just get to a measure of sustainability in all the different efforts in the agency. And one of those is getting to the end of our Fish & Game (department) vision process.

What’s that?
It’s a way to set priorities for the department and figure out how best it can carry out those priorities. When you have a 37 percent general fund reduction, you may very well no longer be able to accomplish what once was your core mission. The vision plan is formally due by next July 1 but we’re trying to get it done a little earlier so its submission runs consistent with the budget process and the legislative session.  

What happens if a department can’t carry out its primary mission?
It has to be changed or the support to carry out that mission has to be present. I’m sure at some point the economy will come back and there will be some measure of support that comes back to the state but also a long-term vision should be thinking how we can best maintain support for state parks.  That’s the discussion that began as a result of the economy.

What’s the problem with the marine protection areas?
What’s lacking is there are four different segments of the coast. South, Central, North Central and North. For Southern California, the regulations are just about to become final in the next few months. The North Coast is out for environmental review. A map will be put out and a final vote of Fish and Game Commission in February or March of next year. Then we move on to enforcement. How it works, how it’s monitored for the science and having money to enforce – that’s still a challenge.

Stability is needed for the financial support for the enforcement. There are mechanisms to do the enforcement but not to raise the money to do it. Considerable private support for this has been raised and bond money or money that went to the Ocean Protection Council that’s funding the monitoring but, as I said earlier, what’s the long-term plan?

Is everyone in agreement on how these marine protection areas should be configured and what restrictions apply within their boundaries?
Recreational fishermen have not been happy about some aspects.  From others there have been some differences over what the right science is. One interesting criticism, which has actually come from commercial fishermen, is they think the problem we need to be addressing is much broader than just marine protected areas. We also need to deal with marine debris and acidification and other issues that are threatening the ocean instead of simply responding to fish populations crashing.

Who’s winning that argument?
It’s not an argument. There need to be some reserves. Look what’s already happened off some parts of the coast of California. There’s such urgency you can’t wait. If you wait until a comprehensive solution is established, you might never get there.

What’s going on with the Sierra Conservancy?
I carried the legislation. Actually it was a bipartisan compromise with (former GOP Assemblyman) Tim Leslie. They’ve been really successful in what they’ve undertaken. The goal was both environmental protection and economic development of the Sierra. I just met with people from the conservancy here about a number of different issues to take it to the next step. It’s great that they’re focusing on that.

So this time around – it’s something like the third – is the Water Control Board going to get it right on those septic regulations that have been kicking around for 10 years?
This is my second favorite thing to say in this job: “They’re in Cal-EPA.” My most favorite thing to say is when people complain about something done by the Resources Agency during the Schwarzenegger administration: “‘I can give you Susan Kennedy’s phone number if you want it.’”

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