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Water Commission could be a conundrum for Guv

When Paul Rodriguez announced last week, prematurely, that he had been appointed to the California Water Commission, he may have inadvertently tipped off environmentalist and Senate Democrats to get ready for battle.

The Commission has been inactive for years, but it is poised to become a major player again if voters approve an $11.1 billion water bond in November. The governor gets to appoint all nine slots to the Commission, which would suddenly be in control of $3 billion of that money.

But those appointments would need to be approved by the Senate. While Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s press office confirmed that he was talking to potential nominees, they would likely face a tough road. If Democrat Jerry Brown maintains or expands his slight lead in the polls over likely Republican nominee Meg Whitman in the race for governor, Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would appear to have little incentive to confirm anyone Schwarzenegger appoints.

“That presumes that we have some strong incentive at the moment,” said Nathan Barankin, Steinberg’s communications director, when asked about this scenario. “Traditionally in the last year of a governor’s time in office, we’re very cautious about approving appointees who will serve well into the next governor’s term, and thus limit the ability of the next governor to organize his or her own government.”

In the wake of several recent disputes between Steinberg and Schwarzenegger, Barankin said, the governor has led the way in letting politics slip into what should be policy discussions.

Most recently, Schwarzenegger announced that he would not consolidate a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Abel Maldonado when he was confirmed as lieutenant governor.  If the governor had added the election to the already-scheduled June primary and November general election, it would have saved elections officials in the five-county district an estimated $2.5 million. But a lower turnout election would likely favor Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, over former Assemblyman John Laird, the leading Democrat in the closely-divided district.

“He’s shown a penchant for exalting political objectives over good public policy and fiscal management,” Barankin said. “That only serves to make us more cautious.”

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear, when asked about the lame duck scenario, noted that it also applies to many different appointed positions, not just the Water Commission. He added that they are likely to move forward anyway.

“I would expect we’re going to have announcements on our appointees coming very soon,” McLear said.

For a body with no current members — and whose last recorded meeting occurred in 2003 under then-Governor Gray Davis — the commission has suddenly become hugely important. The $3 billion it would control represents the most contentious money in the entire bond. For one thing, this money would be “continuously appropriated,” meaning that it has the highest priority over other budget items.

The commission would be able to choose to spend this money on a small group of expensive, high-priority projects. According to a March 4 opinion from the Legislative Counsel, “projects eligible for funding” include “surface storage projects that improve the operation of water systems in the state and provide public benefits.”

But the opinion goes on to say that “no amount of the $11,140,000,000 in bonds…would be required to be expended for a surface water storage facility.” This was a key point on contention with Republicans, who wanted money specifically set aside for dams.

In other words, this is the money that could be used to build, or at least start, several dam projects desired by Schwarzenegger and other Republicans. But without dam advocates on the commission, these particular projects may not get built. Big name projects on their short list include Temperance Flat, Los Vaqueros and Sites Reservoir. The commission also has the ability to name any dams or other large projects—for instance, after Schwarzenegger.

Democrats and environmentalists, by contrast, have been more supportive of storing water underground by refilling aquifers — a solution they say is more cost-effective, loses less to evaporation and causes far less environmental disturbance. Jim Metropulos, senior advocate with the Sierra Club California, said the bond is already written in a way that makes it easier to approve dams than underground storage — particularly when it comes to the part giving weight to the potential “recreational benefits” of projects.

“I’m trying to find some of the recreational benefits of underground water storage,” he joked.

The commission was created when voters approved the State Water Project passed by voters in 1959. With most of these projects completed, Schwarzenegger let the group lapse. But this may prove to be a political miscalculation in a policy area that the governor sees as key to his legacy.

Commissioners are appointed to four-year terms, with members prohibited from serving more than two terms. These terms were staggered, and it appears that these staggered terms would still be in effect.

By letting the commission lapse, then trying to reform it in the closing months of his administration, the governor may have made a political miscalculation. Even if appointed to partial terms, commissioners placed by Schwarzenegger could serve well into the next governor’s term.

If he was appointed and approved, Rodriguez would take one of two slots reserved for “members of the public” rather than for their knowledge and business qualifications “relating to the control, storage and beneficial use of water.”

But Rodriguez is hardly just another “member of the public.” He has been a key ally in Schwarzenegger’s efforts to build water projects. Rodriguez is the chairman of California Latino Water Coalition. This organization has been able to mobilize thousands of farm workers to participate in rallies demanding new water projects and increased water shipments.

While they have billed themselves as a “grassroots” organization, the name of the group was registered by George Soares, a partner with the Sacramento lobbying firm Kahn, Soares & Conway. The firm is the biggest agribusiness lobbyist in the state, representing rice, cotton, and walnut growers, among others. One large organization representing growers confirmed they gave money to help finance coalition events. One key spokesman, Mario Santoyo, is also the assistant general manager of the Friant Water Authority, while another, Patrick George, was also an employee of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.

Records show that the Schwarzenegger administration was intimately involved in the early days of the group. According to the coalition’s own press materials, the idea of the group was “suggested” by the governor while meeting with local officials at Selma City Hall during a visit on March 21, 2007.

A series of emails leaked to the Capitol Weekly show that the administration was involved in helping the group plan some of the early activities. For instance, on Feb. 14, 2008, John Moffatt, then the governor’s deputy legislative secretary, sent an email to Santoyo and several others urging members to lobby members of the Latino Caucus.

Moffatt went on to note “Obviously, we (Susan, Lester and I) would be out of line going to the meeting next Wednesday and preaching to the Latino caucus about the impact of water on Latinos.” This is an apparent refer
ence to the governor’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, and Lester Snow, then the director of the Department of Water Resources. In January, Schwarzenegger appointed Snow to head the state Natural Resources Agency.

On Feb. 22 of that year, Santoyo sent an email addressed to several different people, including Brenda Quintana, an assistant to the governor. He noted that “the water package presentation that Susan Kennedy was going to make to the Legislative Latino Caucus next Wednesday is now off” and that it was “a very high priority” that members of the Coalition set up a meeting it the Latino Caucus.

Rodriguez’s announcement that he had been appointed to the Commission was buried in an April 30 press release saying he would donate proceeds from a May 1 comedy show in Arizona to efforts to overturn that state’s tough new anti-immigrant law. Neither Rodriguez nor his publicist responded to requests for comment.

“Apparently the governor, without announcing it to anybody, has started to make appointments to that commission,” said Steve Evans, conservation director with Friends of the River, an environmental group that opposes the water bond. “We just think that without a process that allows any public input, it is just a crazy situation.”

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