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Strange politics coalesce around water bond’s delay

There is no issue more complicated, more emotional and more fundamental to California politics than water.

So perhaps it was only fitting that a simple procedural vote to delay a vote on the state’s $11 billion water bond was embroiled in political fights that pitted the Assembly Speaker against the governor, the Assembly against the Senate, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger against the strident conservative wing of his own party – a conservative group that had banded with environmentalists and Central Valley Democrats to fight against  the governor.

Nothing, it seems, is easy in Sacramento these days.

In the end, Schwarzenegger and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg got what they wanted. The bond is now scheduled to appear on the June 2012 ballot. Even Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, went along with the program, helping his two Big 5 counterparts – and some-time rivals – guide their proposal off the Assembly floor.

Steinberg and Schwarzenegger had called for the delay in hopes of saving the bond. The agreement that placed the measure on the ballot in the first place was hard-fought, and happened only after hours of negotiating and cajoling by Steinberg and others.  But faced with a huge budget deficit and an increasing general obligation debt, proponents of the plan thought the best way to save the bond was to delay the vote.

But it also gave opponents of the original deal another chance to kill it. Only water could unite conservatives like Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Chico, with liberals like Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.

Everyone had their own reason for wanting to save or kill the water bond. Contra Costa County members say the proposal will lead to the construction of a peripheral canal that will take water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Conservatives argued that keeping the measure on the ballot might limit the governor’s fundraising ability to fight Proposition 23, a suspension of the state’s greenhouse gas law. If Schwarzenegger had to raise money to save the bond, the reasoning went, he would not be able to spend as much on the No on 23 campaign.

“The bottom line is that the governor wanted to move the bond measure to 2012 because he can’t pass the water bond and defeat Prop. 23 at the same time,” said Logue. “That’s what’s behind the whole thing.”

Steinberg said he simply wanted to protect the hard-fought compromise reached last year, which was one of the few major legislative achievements of the last two years.

Some who had supported the original bond were now waffling on the proposal. Several members said they would only vote to move the bond if the policy could be renegotiated. And Pérez, a new speaker who is still establishing his role in the Big 5, seemed eager to make Schwarzenegger sweat for any little perceived concession from the Assembly.

The Monday-night Assembly vote was full of drama. It involved Pérez calling individual members into his office – both Democrats and Republicans. A past skeptic was now playing the role of speaker, twisting arms and extracting votes to move the bill out of his house. In the end, the bill received the required 54 votes to pass when two assemblymen, Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, and Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, changed their votes from “no” to “aye.”

“It was my intention to vote against the delay,” explains Swanson, who opposes the water bond. Some of the measure’s opposition increasingly agreed that removing it from the ballot could be for the better. “It made sense to me…to remove it from the ballot so there could be new discussion and maybe a chance at correcting some of the measure’s flaws,” says Swanson.

In the end, Pérez said, delaying the bond was the right thing to do. “I voted for the delay because I believe the water bond is crucial to the economic future of the state of California,” said Perez in a press release Monday night.  

Those in support of Proposition 18 share the Speaker’s philosophy.

Proponents expressed concern that the $11 billion plan wouldn’t appeal to voters in the heat of current economic contentions. Although it takes the water bond off this year’s ballot, AB 1265 was authored by Senator Cogdill, R-Modesto, in an attempt to save the bond from predicted failure in 2010, gain more support within the next two years, and have it passed in 2012.

“Timing’s everything,” said Cogdill in a press release Monday. “Mindful of the current economic slowdown, I support the move to give voters more time to understand this critical investment and give the state’s economy more time to rebound.”

Lois Wolk was one of seven senators who refused to support the plan to salvage Proposition 18. She consistently voted against its delay, saying that merely suspending the measure is not enough. “It needs to be taken off the ballot entirely and revised.”

Revision could happen during the next two years but Wolk is skeptical, “I can’t say whether it will happen.”

Assembly member Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, agrees. A member of the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee, which passed the AB 1265, Yamada’s district flanks crucial areas of the Delta. Like many environmental groups, Yamada is concerned that the infrastructure plans funded by the water bond do not protect the Delta.  

She voted against the delay in both the committee hearing and the assembly floor. “Proposition 18 should not be delayed, it should be repealed,” says Yamada. “The same majority who put this bond on the ballot wants to wait another two years, without any promise of revision.”

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