Landmark water bond now faces voters

Landmark water bond now faces voters

brown water bondAs August draws to a close, the state has seen a striking instance of successful high-level bipartisan wrangling. Sacramento secured a massive water bond package, putting $7.5 billion in bonds on the ballot as Proposition 1. Although legislators, and Gov. Jerry Brown, are all claiming victory, questions remain as to how much of a short-term impact could be felt.

The most immediate consequence of the deal will be seen on the ballot itself, where a more ambitious 2009 initiative will be swapped out. That measure exceeded $11 billion. It was loaded, as the Desert Sun observed, with “unrelated pork” that “squeaked” the deal through in Sacramento — but caused its postponement on the ballot two separate times.

Political stars align

The embarrassing experience led Brown to propose a “no pork, no frills” bond measure that wouldn’t top $6 billion. In a public letter, Brown slammed the old measure as an irresponsible effort that would impose “enormous costs … $750 million a year for 30 years,” at the expense of “schools, health care and public safety.” What’s more, Brown warned, California’s annual expenditures for bond debt service already approached $8 billion from the general fund.

Often, when legislators balk at a no-pork proposal, they secure special deals as the price of their vote. In this instance, however, legislators representing rural districts — where state Republicans still maintain some clout — negotiated for additional funds specifically targeted at voters’ own water priorities. The price tag on those objectives raised the total bond amount by $1.5 billion above Brown’s number, to $7.5 billion. In a bid to cement his election-year reputation as a Democrat capable of transcending partisanship to tackle big projects, Brown swallowed the increases, and the deal was sealed.

A round of political celebrations

Leading Democrats took the opportunity to cast the compromise as a measure of their own party’s future ambitions. “If we can get water done in California with its history,” said state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, “we can get just about anything else done, and we will.”

Not to be left out, rural California legislators celebrated the deal. State Sen. Tom Berryman, R-Modesto, took to the Modesto Bee to praise central state lawmakers for “sticking together” with farm bureaus and agriculture groups. The resulting leverage, Berryman wrote, led to key Central Valley objectives like the protection of water rights, watersheds and so-called “cross-connectivity,” a feature of interconnected water infrastructure that allows resources to be directed to especially drought-stricken areas.

What’s more, rural legislators increased the amount Brown had offered for water storage. From an initial $2 billion, that number rose to $2.7 billion. The higher number was 36 percent of the total bond, as Berryman underscored. Republicans had pushed to guarantee that storage projects would be funded well enough to weather any unfavorable budgetary or political changes in Sacramento.

Lingering questions

Speaking for many in Sacramento, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said the deal “lays a foundation to meet California’s water needs and gives us the resources we need to ensure our dire drought conditions do not repeat themselves in the future.” Nevertheless, Prop. 1 hasn’t appeased every interest group. Faced with falling aquifer levels brought on by California’s historic drought, some legislators and activists have demanded that attention be turned to groundwater regulation. 

With the legislative season drawing to a close, however, little momentum has built up for the two current bills that would address groundwater. The state Senate and the Assembly each has an option — SB 1168, advanced by Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills; and AB 1739, from Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento. The bills essentially are identical.

The biggest damper on the bond victory, however, has little to do with Sacramento politics. Voters will have to consider the big cash outlays of Prop. 1 at a time when California has precious little water to go around.

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Jerry Brownwater bondJames PoulosProp 1

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