Water bond’s ripples awash in the Capitol

The political fight to get an $11.1 billion water bond on California’s Nov. 2 ballot was tough. The fight to get it off the same ballot may be tough, too.

The same forces – and some new ones – are in play again: Environmentalists vs. business interests, Delta protectionists vs. farmers, Northern California vs.  Southern California, Republicans vs. Democrats, construction workers vs. conservationists. An underlying tension pits the demands of environmentalists to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and block new reservoirs against the building of new dams and the movement of more water to the Central Valley and Southern California.

Many pro-environment Democrats and pro-dam Republicans voted for the bond in a compromise culminating months of negotiations. Many expended political capital in supporting the patchwork proposal. Will they face heat now in voting to delay or change it?

“They had to bite hard on certain things. I know I did,” said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, agreed. “There was a very tough set of issues. There were many legislators, myself included, who voted for this very reluctantly as part of a series of important compromises.”

The governor and three of the four top legislative leaders – two in the Senate and one in the Assembly – generally favor taking the bond off the ballot and delaying it until 2012, citing a weak economy and fears that voters won’t support billions of dollars in new borrowing. The odd man out – so far, at least – is Speaker John Perez, who says he wants to think about it.  As private discussions intensify, a key issue is Perez’s position and how that might play into other major issues – the state budget, for example – as the Legislature heads toward recess.

Options include delaying the bond until November 2012, leaving it on the ballot this year, renegotiating the scope of the bond and shifting the lineup of projects, cutting the dollar amount, or scrapping the whole thing and starting over from square one. The latter is favored by many in the environmental community, who see the bond as a collection of pork projects.

“The right thing to do is remove it entirely and redo it at a much lower amount. Water projects that only benefit a small number of people need to disappear,” said Paul Tebble of Friends of the River, adding that dams also were a critical issue.  “Philosophically,” he added, “it is really difficult for us to accept Temperance Flat (a proposed dam near Fresno).”

The governor and a number of key allies, including agriculture, some water agencies and an economic coalition, favor the delay. Economic conditions aren’t ripe for the bond now, and to lose at the ballot box would make it much more difficult to negotiate a new package, they argue. Also, money that could be tapped for an aggressive pro-bond campaign is being consumed in the high-stakes races for governor and U.S. Senate. And while the bond is supported by the public in early polling, ballot measures that authorize public borrowing tend to wither as Election Day nears.

“We’re the ones who sat down with the governor and reviewed what the options are,” said Jim Earp of the Alliance for Jobs, a coalition of contractors and construction workers. The group has been an advocate for infrastructure improvements.

“After discussion with the governor and legislative leadership, it was kind of the consensus, given the contentious political climate over the budget and a lot of other political issues floating around this November, to wait until the message on the water bond could be heard by voters,” he said.

Ultimately, lawmakers in both houses believe the bond will be postponed – as Gov. Schwarzenegger has urged – but before that happens it may become entangled in the frenzied, 11th-hour negotiations that mark legislative sessions. Pushing the bond to 2012 requires approval from two-thirds of the members in each house. In the final floor votes last year, it emerged from the Senate in a 28-8 vote and from the Assembly, 55-20. In both houses, the measure had a single vote more than the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

“It was a complex, difficult package to negotiate,” said Timothy Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies, which supports the water bond. “Coming back to renegotiate parts of the package – that’s not a good idea. I think they’ll get it done, but it may be a big fight. It was a big issue, a big compromise, and it needs to be held together.”

Earp agreed. “It’s a nonstarter, when you consider that it took three years of hard work to get that legislation put together, you don’t go back after the fact and cherry pick it and change it.”

The $11.14 billion bond, Proposition 18 on the November ballot authored by former Senate GOP Leader Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, provides financing for an array of projects, including dams, drought relief, recycling, habitat restoration, groundwater improvements, watershed restoration, infrastructure improvements, and the like. The mix of capitol projects sought by agriculture and many water districts, plus conservation and restoration projects sought by environmentalists fueled the ultimate compromise that allowed the package to emerge from the Legislature.

But environmentalists, and their allies in the Legislature whose districts flank the delta, were not pleased at what they believed was a lack of protection for the heart of the state’s water system. The bond may die if it goes before voters in the current, harsh economic climate – and that might be a good thing.

“I think it should be repealed and revised, and let the new governor and Legislature consider it,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, a long-time opponent of the original package.  “The first question to ask is, ‘What is the purpose of this bond? If it is the restoration of the health of the delta, then we ought to focus on those projects that reduce the reliance of Southern California and the Bay Area on the delta. My feeling is there should be a narrowed bond, and we should combine that with the $4.1 billion in bonds that were authorized but not sold from Proposition 1E.”

“Going forward with the same bond in 2012,” she added, “may not be wise. The circumstances aren’t right now, and will be even less so in 2012.”

Sierra Club California’s Jim Metropulos agreed. “We’ll have a new governor and a new Legislature. This governor and this Legislature should not tie the hands of the future governor and Legislature with a bad deal.”

But the farm community, which played an important role in the talks that led to the bond measure, favored keeping the package in tact and pushing it 2012.

“We’re disappointed that the vote may be delayed, but we understand why,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “There are many good water improvements in the bond, including funding for new surface storage, but there may be a need to take more time to inform voters…”

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