Gavin Newsom is fond – overly so – of declaring “big hairy, audacious goals” and doing something that implies he’s striving to achieve them.

However, he’s been compelled to devote virtually all of his time to managing crises this year: the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a recession as he shut down businesses to battle infection, a state budget deficit caused by the recession, record heat waves that overwhelmed the state’s power supply, and wildfires of historic proportions.

Managing crises is essentially a reactive process while Newsom fancies himself a proactive striver and doer, not unlike, it should be noted, Jerry Brown in his first stint as governor four decades ago.

Newsom began the year in characteristic form, devoting virtually his entire State of the State address to homelessness and a chronic shortage of housing.

“After decades of neglect and inadequate responses, we are putting our entire state government on notice to respond with urgency,” Newsom declared. “We need a new approach. In the budget I just submitted, I proposed a new California Access to Housing Fund, and, with it, a whole new way of investing in homeless solutions.”

He also declared “a commitment – right now, this year – to major reform that will eliminate red tape, and delays for building critically needed housing – like affordable, multifamily homes – especially near transit and downtowns.”

Never mind. Within days of delivering that speech, Newsom issued his first emergency order on COVID-19.

Newsom is now trying to return to a proactive mode by issuing sweeping executive orders on climate change that make headlines, but really are no more than declarations of lofty intent.

The first declared that California will ban the sale of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines by 2035, but the order only directed the Air Resources Board to explore how that might be done.

The second, issued last week, directed state agencies to devise ways to “protect” 30% of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030 to reduce greenhouse gases and promote biodiversity, boasting that California would be the first state to adopt the “30-by-30” program being advocated globally.

“Once again, California is taking on the mantle of global climate leadership and advancing bold strategies to fight climate change,” Newsom said. “The science is clear that, in our existential fight against climate change, we must build on our historic efforts in energy and emissions and focus on our lands as well.”

But what does “protect” actually mean?

Newsom’s order basically enacts a piece of legislation, aptly named Assembly Bill 3030, that passed the Assembly this year but died in the Senate Appropriations Committee without a vote.

It had an extensive airing in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, whose staff raised the definition question, to wit:

“It is a complicated task to determine how much of the state’s land, water, and ocean resources are already protected, in part because there is no one uniform definition of ‘protection’ in state law. These and similar terms can represent a sliding scale depending on the types of restrictions and allowable uses, including the degree of human access.”

In fact, the meaning of “protect” varies greatly even among its advocates, as the staff report detailed.

That lack of specificity is why those who catch fish, farmers, hunters, housing developers and others opposed the bill. They saw it as carte blanche for state agencies to issue restrictive land use rules.

Recommended for you