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Partial water package looms before conference committe

A portion of the legislation containing a multibillion-dollar overhaul of California's water system is pending in a special two-house conference committee but without one critical piece – the money.

The water bills were expected to be considered Tuesday evening, but that Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the bills likely wold be taken up Wednesday. 

The 14-member, two-house conference committee is trying to craft a bipartisan compromise on an unprecedented water plan that includes proposals for stringent conservation, reservoirs, a huge canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and a new government commission to run the program.

Steinberg, responding to close questioning from Republican committee members, said the all-critical finance piece of the proposals would take more time. "Hypothetically, some combination of bonds and fees," he noted.

In a joint statement after the committee adjourned, Republican leaders in both houses condemned the conference committee process.

"While the alleged purpose of this committee has been to craft a bipartisan, comprehensive solution to the state’s water crisis, this failed process is nothing but a dog and pony show," said the statement from Sen. Dennish Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, and Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo. "What’s currently on the table does not reflect any Republican input."

"We do have a 5 p.m. deadline for signing a conference report. We have until Friday midnight (the deadline for the legislative recess) to potentially complete the whole package," Steinberg said at a Labor Day hearing in the Capitol.

However, that deadline came and went without the committee convening. That means there will be less time to consider the package as a whole before the Legislature recesses by midnight Friday.

Some Republicans on the committee were concerned that majority Democrats intended to ram through a water package by crafting it piecemeal, rather than as a comprehensive policy-finance plan requiring bipartisan support.

"We are mindful of the logistics," Steinberg told Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, the ranking GOP water expert in the Senate, who wondered whether a final water package would be truly bipartisan.

"Nobody is playing any games…by Friday, it is my hope that we will have a full package, one big bill that will be ready to vote upon," Steinberg said. When pressed whether that meant that the final plan would include the dollars, Steinberg, flatly, said, "Yes."

Estimates of the cost of a water package have varied wildly – from $15 billion to three times that amount, and more. Many environmentalists have opposed the dams and canal as too costly and disruptive to the ecosystem. But supporters, including many water agencies, the governor, some in organized labor and the farm community, believe the construction is long overdue.

The policy implications of the water package – whether to build a canal and reservoirs, whether to strictly enforce a 20 percent reduction in water usage over the next 11 years, for example – are highly controversial. But the question of who pays for what is at the heart of the water package and has generated sharp debate.

The final package, as Steinberg said, likely will contain provisions for water customers, including hundreds of public water agencies, to pay for water according to a fee schedule. It also may contain some form of borrowing, potentially through General Obligation bonds that require voter approval. A $12 billion-plus finance package has been proposed by Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, although other bond-fee proposals are circulating in the Capitol.

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