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Water bond options: Delay, rewrite, reduce

An $11 billion water bond facing voters on the November likely will be rewritten, downsized or delayed – or even all three — to reflect political realities and a weak economy, says the leader of the Senate.

Confronting voters with a big borrowing package like the water bond – nearly as large in real dollars as the borrowing that financed the State Water Project more than 50 years ago — may not be prudent, given that Gov. Brown is pushing his November tax initiative to raise $7 billion annually for schools and public safety over the next five years. At least two other tax-increase plans to raise billions of dollars in new revenue also remain active.

The combination of conflicting tax measures could imperil the passage of one or all, so at the end of the day, the governor’s plan takes precedence.

“The tax initiative comes first,” Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said Wednesday.

An earlier attempt to cut the bond offering by 25 percent across-the-board was rejected by majority Democrats, noting that the fragile compromises that crafted initiative likely would unravel if the projects were disturbed.

The $11.14 billion plan, with bipartisan backing and approved in super-majority votes, covers state, local and regional projects across the state.

Those include water quality improvements, watershed protections, groundwater storage and cleanup, recycling, Delta safeguards, drought relief and some $3 billion to develop new storage, including reservoirs near Fresno and the other near Maxwell north of Sacramento.

Most of the projects were included following difficult negotiations between rival forces. Among the most active supporters are water districts.

Steinberg said it was conceivable that the bond could be reduced to $7 billion to $8 billion, but he raised doubts about whether the proposal could be substantially rewritten. A major hurdle is that the bond package is sort of an interlocking matrix —  the presence of each piece depends on the positioning of each of the others, the result of difficult negotiations.

“All this needs to be backed up by policy and research,” he added.

If lawmakers decide on placing a down-sized water bond before voters in November, they’ll need to act by late spring or early summer, he added.

Supporters of the water bond, who include major water agencies across the state, believe November offers the best chances of passage. That’s because Democrats – who historically have favored bond issues more than Republicans – will come to the polls in disproportionately greater numbers to vote in the presidential election.

The public has supported water development in the past. A $5.4 billion borrowing was approved in 2006 as Proposition 84, part of a larger infrastructure-improvement plan. At the time that Proposition 84 went before the electorate, California voters had approved some $11 billion for water projects during the previous decade.

Any change in the plan requires a two-thirds vote of members in each house.

In real dollars adjusted for inflation, the 2012 water bond is less than the voter-approved, $1.75 billion bond of 1960 that created the State Water Project. That bond would be worth about $12.7 billion today.

Ed’s Note: This story also appeared in California Water Wars at www.calwaterwars.com


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