Senate Drowns Steinberg Water Bill

MAY 5, 2011


In a highly unusual turn of events, a high-profile water bill authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, was drowned by his own party. Colleagues figured out that the bill would move Sacramento to the head of the line for water bond money.

SB 52 would have provided $50 million in federal funds to a Sacramento region sanitation district, but died an awkward death in a the Senate Environmental Quality committee Monday. Registering disapproval with the blatant favoritism over other Senate districts in the state, three Democratic senators abstained from even voting on the bill. This signified obvious discomfort at finding themselves on the opposite side of an issue with Steinberg.

The controversy is two-fold: The bill appears to be an attempt to grab money for Sacramento, putting the interests of one region above all others in the state. And the bill was authored by the president of the Senate, which must have made it painfully awkward to vote against it.

Every legislator is expected to author legislation that will benefit his or her home district. But opponents said this bill would have compromised other water projects by promoting the Sacramento project ahead of others.

Mum’s the Word

The abstaining members are not talking.

I made several calls to the press secretaries of senators Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, and Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, to find out why they did not vote for or against Steinberg’s bill. I asked what the specific objections were. The calls were not returned by Hancock’s office by press time, and Pavley could not be reached.

The legislative analysis of the bill states:

This bill appropriates $50,000,000 to Department of Water Resources from the above bond acts, to provide financial assistance to the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District (SRCSD) to offset rate increases associated with the costs of capital improvements to the district’s regional sewage treatment plant as a result of the issuance of a specified NPDES permit and waste discharge requirements.

The bond acts referred to in the bill is Proposition 1E, a legislatively referred bond act from 2006. The $4.1 billion bond measure was for the purpose of rebuilding, repairing and reinforcing California’s 6,000 miles of levees, and passed with nearly 65 percent of the vote.

Supporters say that the purpose of SB 52 is to address the drastic increase in ratepayer costs to fund this $2 billion statewide water project, and contend that the increase will result in “significant adverse impact to the regional economy.” But Steinberg’s bill would only lower costs for residents in the Sacramento region.

Job Losses

The bill analysis cited a University of the Pacific, Eberhardt School of Business report that estimated the economic impact of rate increases resulting from the project would cause a loss of more than $7 billion in regional income and 30,000 lost jobs.

Supporters state that this project is needed “to alleviate the regional economic burden in order to provide for the long term health of the Delta for the entire state by appropriating $50 million, for the Sacramento Sanitation District.”

But the analysis identifies opponents who are critical that Steinberg’s bill puts the Sacramento sanitation project ahead of other projects in the state, regardless of whether this is the most worthy or necessary project.

Voting against SB 52 was Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo. He said:

I was troubled that the bill appeared to take $50 million from voter-approved bonds for an expenditure inconsistent with their underlying purpose and in a manner that circumvented the competitive award process. I was further concerned that only a very narrow constituency would benefit from the expenditure.

Opponents include the Association of California Water Agencies, the California Central Valley Flood Control Association and the California Municipal Utilities Association. The supporters of Steinberg’s bill are obvious: the city of Sacramento — and the cities of Citrus Heights and Elk Grove, both located in Sacramento County.

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