Saturday, August 8, 2009




It may not be the unkindest cut and it may also not be the most inefficient or deadly one Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made when he used his veto pen to blue-pencil more than $500 million more from the state budget than legislators had already done.

But cutting $27.8 million from the Williamson Act program that preserves agricultural lands and leaving it with a token $1,000 was surely the brownest cut of all.

Once and for all, it puts the lie to Schwarzenegger’s bluster about being the world’s greenest public official, a pose that has put him on the covers of international magazines and led him to sponsor or participate in myriad high-profile environmental programs, both live and on television.

Schwarzenegger never has evinced pretensions about being particularly humane; his state finance director, Mike Genest, in one remarkable conference call last spring conceded the budget cuts then planned and now largely executed by the Schwarzenegger administration would probably result in multiple deaths. That was all part of holding the line against new taxes beyond those imposed in February.

Among the governor's vetoes were many millions for child welfare services, early childhood education, health care for low income persons, AIDs prevention programs and health insurance for children of the working poor.

None of that was hypocritical, for Schwarzenegger has rarely advocated safety nets for the poor or the ill.

But the Williamson Act is different, and Schwarzenegger wanted to axe it for at least the last two years, even though it eliminates far more climate-changing carbon from the atmosphere than any other program now in effect or contemplated anywhere in the world, including the cap-and-trade proposals of both President Obama and the California Air Resources Board.

Here’s a little background on the Williamson Act: It’s a 43-year-old program named for John Williamson, a 1960s-era assemblyman from Kern County, that gives farmers a property tax subsidy if they pledge to keep their land in agriculture for periods of 10 to 20 years. It currently protects 16.4 million acres of farm and ranch land from development.

And here’s what that has to do with being green: A Purdue University study earlier this decade found that every acre of farmland in that state pulls an estimated 0.107 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air each year. That’s for all types of farmland, including grazing land, vineyards, rice fields, cotton fields, orchards and more.

This is a lowball figure, of course, because it’s based on Indiana lands. No green leaves or blades of grass take carbon from the air there during the winter, as they do here. But even under those conditions, far less advantageous than in California, the math works out to a minimum total of 1.754 million tons of carbon absorbed yearly by those 16.4 million Williamson Act acres. Or 3.5 billion pounds. Nothing else planned anywhere involves more than a fraction of those amounts.

Schwarzenegger, the much-hyped champion of the battle against global warming, knows this. He was given the numbers during a 2007 press conference after his press secretary admitted the governor and his staff knew nothing of the Williamson Act’s climate-changing relevance. This was immediately after he first proposed cutting out the state’s support for the program, a cut that did not happen because legislators restored funding. The governor, no longer able to deny knowledge of his hypocrisy, also tried to chop the program in budget negotiations earlier this year, but was thwarted again by lawmakers.

Legislators likely can’t restore it now, because they would need a two-thirds vote of both the state Assembly and Senate and because Democrats in Sacramento are far more outraged by Schwarzenegger’s other vetoes than by this one.

So it will now be up to cash-strapped counties to decide whether to continue Williamson Act contracts or cancel them. Cancellation would not mean immediate bulldozing of farm and ranch lands, because current pacts would have to run their course before farmers could sell land to developers.

But many farmers and ranchers have said the Williamson Act subsidy is the only thing that prevented them from doing this long ago.

Which means the symbolic butcher knife Schwarzenegger wielded so visibly on Twitter just before announcing his vetoes could chop millions of acres from California’s agricultural lands over the next two decades.

That would be the brownest of legacies for a man who has styled himself an international champion of green causes.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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