SACRAMENTO — The catastrophic oil slick spreading through the Gulf of Mexico has claimed another victim: Cash for California's strapped parks system.
Painting a grim picture of the spill's devastation, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday backed away from a contentious drilling proposal off the coast of Southern California that officials hoped would raise $1.8 billion for state parks over the next 14 years.
The decision means the governor must find $100 million for parks in this year's budget and $119 million more in the 2010-11 budget, adding additional pain to California $18.6 billion budget deficit. Schwarzenegger likely would have faced the same issue later this year, given deep political and environmental opposition to the plan, but now he'll need to do it in time for his latest budget proposal next Friday.
Still, scenes of idled fishermen and oil-sickened water birds in the Gulf convinced the governor more drilling is not the answer.
"It will not happen here in California," Schwarzenegger said at a news conference. "If I have a choice between the $100 million and what I see in the Gulf of Mexico, I'd rather just figure out how to make up for that $100 million."
Schwarzenegger had pushed the oil drilling proposal, known as the Tranquillon Ridge project, since last year as a way to bring money to the state's bleeding general fund. The project — which would have been the state's first new oil lease in 40 years, would have drilled new wells in state waters off Santa Barbara County from a platform currently sitting in federal waters. Also, after 14 years, the platform would be dismantled.
The Legislature last year refused to approve it, and so did the State Lands Commission — with then-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a Democrat, providing the swing "no" vote. Schwarzenegger hoped to push the plan again this year even though his hand-picked choice to replace Garamendi as lieutenant governor, Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado, said he probably wouldn't support the project as proposed.
Asked if his stand on Tranquillon Ridge may have swayed the governor's, Maldonado told the Mercury News he didn't think so. He was "happy" the governor pulled the plug, but insisted "during my confirmation process, not once did he tell me anything about any issues that he wanted me to support or not to support. I'm sure the stuff going on in the Gulf Coast had an impact."
A representative for the Houston-based company negotiating for the oil lease, PXP, did not return messages requesting comment.
While the drilling proposal appears dead for now, uncertainty over the parks system — long hailed as a jewel of the state — continues.
Finance Department officials on Monday wouldn't say what solutions would be included in the new budget plan, but nonetheless invoked language in the governor's January budget plan that said the state would make up any difference in the parks budget when expected revenues from Tranquillon Ridge would fall short.
"From a fiscal standpoint, we're going to have to account for it in the coming week," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Finance Department.
The parks system endured some of the worst back-and-forth in last year's budget fight. Schwarzenegger at one point proposed closing 220 of California's 278 state parks to help balance the budget, drawing significant public opposition. After lawmakers restored funding, he then proposed closing only 100, only to reverse course once again.
In the end, parks were subjected to just $14.2 million in cuts achieved through reduced hours, closed visitor centers and padlocked restrooms at beaches, forests and historic sites. The current operating budget for California's parks is $380 million.
State parks supporters said Monday's news underscores the need for voters to approve a measure headed for the November ballot that would increase annual vehicle registration fees by $18 a year in California to help boost the state's ailing parks system. Last month, supporters turned in 760,000 signatures to elections officials to qualify the measure, which if approved by a majority of California voters, would raise $500 million while also providing free admission to all 278 state parks.
"This is another example that demonstrates the budget roller coaster that California's state parks are living on," said campaign spokeswoman Fiona Hutton. "We need a reliable, stable funding stream for state parks to ensure are parks are well managed."
Schwarzenegger threatened to veto a similar proposal when the Legislature pushed one last year, calling it a tax, even though he approved an $11 annual fee to help fund the California Highway Patrol. And although he has not formally taken a position on the ballot measure, he is not expected to support it.
The governor has said he supported Tranquillon Ridge only as a last-ditch measure amid the state's worst financial crisis in decades. And on Monday, he said even that support came only after "numerous studies" showed how safe the drilling would be. Then, he said, he watched the news this weekend.
"All of you have seen, when you turn on your televisions, the devastation in the Gulf," he said. "I'm sure that they were also assured that it is safe to drill."
Mercury News Staff Writer Paul Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Denis C. Theriault at 916-441-4651.