The Lowdown on California’s Proposition 68

Editor’s note on June 6, 2018:

It just takes a few minutes to email your representatives and make a difference with the REI Cooperative Action Network.

Take action today

Proposition 68—the $4.1 billion bond measure to fund state and local parks, environmental projects, water infrastructure projects and flood protection projects throughout California—passed in the state primary election yesterday. Read our previous coverage below to learn more about how passage of the bill will impact residents of and travelers to the state.

On June 5, California residents will vote on Proposition 68, a $4.1 billion bond measure that, if approved, would fund environmental and restoration initiatives, and water infrastructure and flood protection projects across the state. In addition, the proposal sets aside $1.3 billion for rehabilitating and creating state and local parks.

Proponents of Proposition 68 view it as a sound investment in the state’s water, parks and natural resources. Organizations like the Outdoor Industry Association are calling it a landmark measure for how it would address environmental concerns while improving access to recreation, particularly for low-income communities. Opponents worry about the state taking on too much debt; some suggest that the funds could be more wisely invested elsewhere.

I sat down with Scott Ammons, outdoor programs and outreach manager for REI in Southern California, and Marc Berejka, director of government and community affairs for REI, to learn more about the impact Prop 68 could have.

What is Proposition 68 and why is it significant for residents and nonresidents of California?

Scott: Proposition 68 [would authorize the sale of] $4.1 billion in general obligation bonds to provide money for water security, parks and natural resources. It does things like ensuring clean drinking water, preparing for the next drought, preparing for climate change, allowing more efficient use of water, providing safe parks for every child—and all of our residents—and promoting recreation and tourism.

General obligation bonds (sometimes called GO bonds) use state or local funding to pay for projects up-front; the state or local government then pays them off over time with tax revenue. What is the potential financial cost to the state?

Scott: A bond sale requires interest payments over several years, but [California] would remain within the guidelines for prudent financing. The state would continue to spend 6 percent or less of any general fund on total interest payments for all bonds—which is to say that we are in a good place. There isn’t a strong argument to say that California doesn’t have the resources to do this.

It’s been said that the proposition would prioritize low-income communities where parks are often in need of upkeep or where there is a shortage of public parks. If Proposition 68 passes, what changes are we likely to see in low-income areas?

Scott: For large portions of California—both rural and urban—there is a real lack of access to parks and open spaces. My home is greater Los Angeles, where a majority of residents cannot take a 10-minute walk from home and reach a local park or open space. We know parks produce important social and community benefits—they make neighborhoods more livable and create opportunities for recreation like walking, biking, connecting with nature. It can really boost the quality of life to have access to open spaces, green spaces or parks in your local community. That’s one of the best things that this bond does—it actually allocates nearly 18 percent of the funds to building or revitalizing parks in park-poor communities.

“That’s one of the best things that this bond does—it actually allocates nearly 18 percent of the funds to building or revitalizing parks in park-poor communities.” – Scott Ammons, outdoor programs and outreach manager for REI in Southern California 

Beyond funding parks, how would the measure support water projects and protect other state resources?

Scott: Another big part of the bill is supporting clean drinking water and drought preparedness. By protecting river parkways and urban streams—and [restoring] and protecting all of the lands around where our waters flow (rivers, lakes, streams)—it’s helping to provide cleaner water for us.

The bond would also fund groundwater cleanup, water sustainability and more efficient use of water recycling and reclamation. For example, here in Los Angeles, most of the water that falls as rain gets washed out to the ocean. And, in a place like Southern California, which is prone to droughts and has a huge water need, by reclaiming, recycling and using water more efficiently, we can actually begin supporting ourselves much better.

COJ: Talk about the relationship REI has with the local nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR).

Scott: REI has had a very long relationship with the nonprofit organization Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR). The Los Angeles River is a 51-mile waterway that goes all the way from the valley of Los Angeles out to the ocean. [Enveloped in concrete] in the 1930s as flood protection—as a spillway—it travels through park-poor communities and funnels all of the water that falls in Los Angeles into the Pacific. The Los Angeles River, for most of its life, has been fenced off and hasn’t been accessible at all … What FOLAR has been working on for years and what REI has been helping them do, through outreach, partnering on events and providing grants year after year (to date REI has supported FOLAR with $100,000 in grants) … is to really help them achieve that dream of taking away the fences, breaking up the concrete, returning [the Los Angeles River] to a soft-bottom river and, over time, taking that spillway and turning it into an open green space that’s walkable, bikeable, boatable and fishable. And we’re definitely making progress.

Marc: And the bond would double down on that progress?

Scott: Absolutely. A good portion of that money will come to Los Angeles and to the Los Angeles River—it’s definitely one of the things that will benefit from it.

How would some of these water projects help support California’s ability to prevent wildfires? I saw a figure that suggested the state spent $1.8 billion fighting wildfires last year.  

Scott: Another goal of the bond is to improve resilience to climate change. A part of Proposition 68 sets money aside for forest restoration, which would help with wildfires, fire protection and management of wildfire areas. So, there is money to help mitigate the impact of forest fires because, as we saw this past year with the fires in Ventura and Santa Barbara (and in many other recent years with devastating wildfires), it has a massive impact on our communities.

The Outdoor Industry Association is calling this a landmark proposition because of the way it would simultaneously address environmental and recreation infrastructure needs. Do you agree?

Scott: Yes. Proposition 68 does things that are great for fire protection, clean water, drinking water, drought resistance and improving resilience to climate change. At the same time, by doing those things, we’re also supporting the places that make people healthier and happier and we’re building strong communities.

“By doing these things, we’re also supporting the places that make people healthier and happier and we’re building strong communities.” – Scott Ammons

Marc: To Scott’s point, when you have measures that are in service of a healthy environment, you can also implement them in a way that creates recreation access—and that’s good for individual health and well-being, it’s good for the health and well-being of our communities and, lo and behold, people have come to appreciate that it also keeps economies vibrant and sustains overall quality of life. It makes the state a place that’s appealing to live in and appealing to visit.

Want to learn more? Check out the official voter guide. Ready to cast a ballot? Click here to get ready to vote on (in person) or before (by mail) June 5.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.