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How did Merced County fare in California's approved state budget? Local leaders weigh in

Merced Sun-Star logo Merced Sun-Star 7/6/2022 Abbie Lauten-Scrivner, Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.)

Jul. 4—Gov. Gavin Newsom endorsed a $308 billion 2022-23 budget Thursday, ushering in billions of state dollars for major investments in the Merced community.

The colossal spending plan was passed by state lawmakers late Wednesday night, just ahead of their July recess. With Newsom's signature, it went into effect Friday.

The $308 billion budget addresses several statewide issues, such as $17 billion in relief for inflation-stressed families via refund checks ranging from $200 to $1,050. The spending plan includes funding for expanded abortion access and healthcare for undocumented immigrants as well.

California's new budget also sets aside millions in dollars for several Merced-area initiatives. Local leaders have largely praised the fiscal plan, but some say it still falls short of truly meeting the community's needs.

State Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Merced, applauded the budget's support for key projects statewide and in her district. "With a responsible budget for today and long-term planning for our future, California is well positioned to continue to be an economic powerhouse and a place where all can thrive," she said in a Thursday news release.

Merced City Manager Stephanie Dietz told the Sun-Star this year's state budget investments align well with the City Council's goals and priorities for their community.

"I think the state's priorities and the (Merced) City Councils priorities, at a high level they fall in line with each other," she said.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, also saluted parts of the state spending plan, but voiced concerns about other elements of the budget that he deemed insufficient, according to a statement he released Thursday.

Here's a few of Merced projects getting a boost from this year's California state budget:

Funds for new training station, bullet train, other projects

Merced-area officials are hailing the state budget's investment in a new initiative to train emergency services professionals locally.

The $3 million funding for phase one construction of a Merced Regional Fire Training Station at the Merced Yosemite Regional Airport was championed by Caballero. Proponents say the program will spur new economic development and jobs, retain first responders locally and address staffing shortages.

"This is an exciting investment that the senator has championed," City Manager Stephanie Dietz said "This is a brand new opportunity for career development in the greater Merced region."

The hope for the program is to facilitate an emergency services pathway with Merced Union High School District that leads students to careers in the emergency services field, Dietz said.

The training center will house a paramedic certification program with a wide array of hands-on learning opportunities, created in partnership between the Merced Fire Department and Merced College.

"Currently, everyone in our region travels two to three hours out of town for training," Dietz said.

The training station is expected to help with employee recruitment and retention, in addition to serving as a regional center that will attract outside organizations to do their training in Merced.

The project is currently in its environmental review and design stages. Ground breaking is projected to start within the next six months, according to the city.

Another long-anticipated local enterprise also received an injection of state dollars from the state budget. The allocation of $4.2 billion in funding to complete the Merced-to-Bakersfield segment of the state high speed rail project.

The budget establishes an independent Office of Inspector General for high-speed rail. It also comes with legislative direction to prioritize construction of the Merced-Bakersfield segment. The $4.2 billion will go toward the planning, design and construction of the project, according to the City of Merced.

Last year's state budget package withheld the last chunk of money from Proposition 1A high speed rail funds, the $9.9 billion bond measure approved by voters in 2008.

Subsequent negotiations failed to move forward, drawing concern among California High-Speed Rail Authority officials that the ongoing construction of 119 miles of the future San Joaquin Valley bullet-train route might stall.

City of Merced officials and residents have also long wondered whether a local station will ever come to fruition, Dietz said. City staff and officials like former mayor Mike Murphy have been advocating for the project for years.

The budget signed this week however includes those Proposition 1A funds among the $47 billion overall for infrastructure throughout California.

"We couldn't be more excited to kick this off," Dietz said, noting the expanded opportunities for jobs and economic development the project will bring.

The segment traveling from Merced to Bakersfield would form the high speed rail system's backbone for future work extending lines east to the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as south through Palmdale and into Los Angeles and Anaheim. The cost of completing the section is estimated at about $19.7 billion.

The Merced station is in its very early planning stages, but Dietz said the city intends to include community members in the development process as much as possible as the project moves forward.

In its most basic conceptualization, the project is envisioned as a hub for various forms of transit that will connect residents and visitors throughout the Valley⁠ — and beyond. City officials see potential to link the station with transportation to local bus services, such as the YARTS route to Yosemite National Park, and the Merced Yosemite Regional Airport.

Other Merced-area state budget investments include $31.5 million to UC Merced for campus expansion projects, $3 million to the UC Merced Labor Center and another $18 million for university climate initiatives.

Merced College is also set to receive $15 million for the Agri-Food Workforce and Technology Collaborative for the Central Valley.

Merced County was allocated $5 million for public safety radio system replacement and $3 million for construction of the Dos Palos Library.

Assemblyman criticizes budget's shortfalls

According to a statement released by Gray following the budget's passage, the Assemblyman had "mixed feelings" about the state's spending plan.

Gray expressed support for funding allocated to UC Merced and Merced College, as well as the $200 to $1,050 refund checks for financially stressed families. He also commended the budget's tax cuts, rebates and historic investments in the San Joaquin Valley.

However, Gray voiced disappointment over the budget's failure to fund initiatives that would mitigate other important Valley issues, such as suspending the gas tax and investing in new water storage.

"The state budget fails to incorporate the twelve-month gas tax holiday that I and the bipartisan California Problem Solvers Caucus introduced," Gray said in a news release Thursday. "President Biden recently called for a federal gas tax holiday and urged states to suspend their taxes as well. With a $100 billion surplus to work with, there is no excuse for California's failure to act."

The Assemblyman said he will continue to push for a year-long suspension of the gas tax.

The 2022-23 spending plan did suspend sales tax on diesel for the next year, Gray acknowledged. The suspension will help ease costs to blue-collar workers and combat ascending prices of consumer goods transported by trucks including California-grown fruits and vegetables, he said.

Gray also took issue with the state, after another year of severe drought, falling short of bringing "California water into the 21st Century" by building more water storage.

"California's population has doubled while we have relied on the same water storage infrastructure built and paid for by our grandparents," Gray said.

The Assemblyman did salute the approval of his request to audit the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Board after the water supply forecast was off by more than 700,000 acre-feet.

"This audit is long overdue, but we need to pair better management practices with additional water storage capacity," Gray said.

The Fresno Bee's Tim Sheehan contributed to this report.

(c)2022 the Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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