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A Natural Step

news1jlGT chats with John Laird about his new post as Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency
From his 23 years experience as an elected official, beginning with the Santa Cruz City Council in 1981, John Laird has earned a statewide reputation as a progressive yet pragmatic politician, with a mastery of both process and details of legislative compromise.

Before arriving in Sacramento, Laird was a UC Santa Cruz graduate (1972) and former Santa Cruz City Council member (1981-90) with two stints as the city’s mayor.  He went on to serve the maximum three terms as State Assembly Member (D-27th District, 2002-2008), during which time he was appointed chair of the Assembly’s Budget Committee (2006).

Over the summer of 2010, in a hotly contested, off-cycle special election, Laird lost the race for the 15th District State Senate seat, vacated by Abel Maldonado’s appointment as lieutenant governor, by a slim margin to Republican Sam Blakeslee. But, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens: On Jan. 5, Gov. Jerry Brown announced Laird’s appointment as Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.

California’s Natural Resources Agency is responsible for the state’s natural resource conservation and protection policies, programs and regulatory activities. The agency has almost 18,000 employees and oversees 25 departments, commissions, boards and conservancies, including the Department of Fish and Game, Department of Water Resources, Department of Forestry, Cal Fire and the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Good Times sat down with the locally grown representative to discuss the challenges and opportunities that leading such a massive and controversial agency may have in store for him.

GOOD TIMES: With this appointment, you are taking a big step from serving as state legislator to the administrator of a huge, sprawling state agency. How will your legislative background help you in this shift from policymaker to policy administrator, especially in a time of drastic budget cuts?

Laird: As a legislator, I sponsored bills and supervised budgets in almost every area of the Natural Resources Agency jurisdiction, including coastal protection, [the] Williamson Act, water resources, and state parks, so my legislative service gave me great background on the issues and relationships I will need to run this agency. But it is a real shift, from being a legislator to the administrator of an agency with almost 18,000 employees. …. It’s also very different because I now speak for the administration, led by the governor, rather than speaking as a legislator from a Central Coast district. That has taken some time getting used to.

What do you see as the near-term priorities for the California Natural Resources Agency?

Number one, of course, is dealing with the state budget, and there are a number of places where the budget is at issue in the agency such as [with] Cal Fire proposals, state park proposals, and lack of funding for the Williamson Act [also known as The California Land Conservation Act of 1965], to name just a few budget headlines.

Number two is water in the Delta, which continues to be a big, statewide problem with several major issues pending as I walked in the door. I was trying to figure out how I could give direction to some Delta-related lawsuits before I was officially made Secretary; I thought the issues were that urgent.

Marine life protection is [also] a big issue, and the designation process for a marine life preservation area along the coasts of Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties is pending.

Another huge issue is the planned removal of four dams from the Klamath River, and restoration of the watershed after the dams are removed. There are two or three other burning issues, but that gives you an example of “near-term” problems on my plate. But that’s why I expect I’m going to like this job—I can really get things done. I think the challenge of this job will also be its reward.

How do you think your legislative record on environmental protection issues will work as you try to craft consensus on rule making and administration of natural resource policy statewide?

I’m also known as a legislator who was able to bridge gaps, who was pragmatic and was able to get things done. After my appointment, a few representatives of big agricultural interests, even though we’ve had real disagreements in the past, said they were happy with my appointment because I included them, I heard them, and if there were ways to build their interests into a solution, I did it. As Secretary of the Resources Agency, I have to be able to do that—to balance interests.

I have to say serving as an elected official from the City of Santa Cruz was great experience for this job … Those skills that make you successful in Santa Cruz politics are transferable to the secretary’s job; you have to know at least a little about just about everything, you have to deliver, your word has to be your bond, and you have to be able get to the end of the issue and get things done. The City of Santa Cruz was great experience for honing those skills.

A draft of a four-year, $140 million technical study, the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, was released In November. That draft report seems to conclude that a large peripheral canal or tunnel is the only viable option to ensure adequate water supply south of the Delta. What’s your position on this plan?

This is the first time in modern history we have a chance to make real progress on California Delta and water export issues. There is finally progress being made on how, scientifically, it will be best to restore the Delta and provide water reliably down south. The problem has always been getting various stakeholders to buy into the scientific basis of the decision making, the scientific basis for the flows that are needed into the Delta that are necessary to restore fish habitats, and what amount of water can be reliability exported south. And these flows change year to year. Our challenge is making sure the scientific basis for the policy-making includes many different views, because everyone has to have some faith in this science. If we can do that, and I think the Bay-Delta Plan will help us do that, then we can make some real progress. For example, determining what minimum flows into the Delta are necessary for restoration, that is, with scientific analysis, a major step forward, which has historically been a secondary consideration to water exports south.

Given the defeat of the state park funding initiative, Prop. 21, last November, how do you plan to keep state parks open and functioning with such drastic budget cuts looming?

Well, in fact, there will be state parks closed as part of the governor’s [proposed] budget, and I’m working with the parks director to release a list of the parks to be closed in the next few weeks. I don’t relish that part of this job at all. It’s hard, and it’s not going to be pretty when it happens.

Right now, we’re all working on the budget, all the time. The single focus is on the cuts outlined in the governor’s budget, and extending those tax revenues due to expire in June. As the governor said, we need to extend these taxes or face even more drastic cuts in services. This is the message I will be carrying in the months ahead, that when we’re closing parks, and dealing with the lack of funding for the Williamson Act, I’m going to be talking directly to Californians about what this means and about what the future is. We have to take some severe cuts, and we also have to continue the revenues.

For the first time, we now have a governor that actually wants to get to the end, to actually balance the state budget, rather than keep rolling the deficit over and over, year after year. … That’s why I’m supporting some things that I’ve never supported in the past because the governor is offering us the hope of getting the entire budget uprighted, once and for all.

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