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California voters have final say over $11 billion water bond

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Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2009 12:00 am

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders say their $11.1 billion water bond is an essential investment for California's future, but it may be a hard sell to voters.

California already is saddled with debt, and the bond measure that will appear on the November 2010 ballot is filled with special-interest earmarks added in the late hours through backroom dealmaking.

The bond ballooned by $1.7 billion over two days while legislative leaders sought to win the votes they needed to pass the measure.

"It is a little bit of a Catch-22," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "We did go into this thinking it would do better if we kept the financing piece smaller and yet, as we moved toward the finish line, I think we recognized there's a whole lot of unmet need."

Schwarzenegger is expected to sign the bond and four companion bills that would change how the state uses water and manages the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the estuary that funnels fresh water from Northern to Southern California, where most people live.

The Republican governor described the bond as a wise investment to upgrade California's antiquated water system and meet the needs of a growing population. Schwarzenegger noted the bond had fluctuated between $8 billion and $12 billion during the past few months of negotiations.

"What is of interest to me is the result," Schwarzenegger said at a news conference Wednesday. "The result is a great package of approximately $11 billion."

The bond was initially presented to senators at a total cost of $9.4 billion. The biggest increase of $1 billion was inserted by the Assembly late Tuesday to satisfy Southern California area Democrats who complained the bond favored rural areas.

Funding to boost water recycling and groundwater supplies was added at the request of the mayors of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Fresno and Santa Ana, according to a copy of an Oct. 23 letter sent to the governor and legislative leaders.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, said it was necessary to include resources that represent the entire state.

"The bond that came over from the Senate was not complete," Bass said. "We absolutely had to add the resources so the major population centers would be eligible for funding."

Among the earmarks tucked into the bond by Steinberg was a $10 million allocation to build a tolerance center in Sacramento featuring an aquarium and botanical garden. It was removed by the Assembly early Wednesday, and Steinberg acknowledged it was a mistake.

Lawmakers wrote the bond so only half could be sold before July 1, 2015, aiming to minimize initial costs to the state's strapped general fund. Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, said the cost of the bond would be negligible and there would be no disastrous impact on the general fund.

Jason Dickerson, director of state administration at the Legislature's nonpartisan analyst's office, said voter approval of the water bond would add to California's massive debt, which could soon require 10 percent of state revenue to pay down.

Debt service on the water bond alone would likely cost between $725 million to $809 million a year after all the bonds have sold, he said.

Several unions expressed concern about the bond, including a teachers union that fears a dollar used to pay off debt is a dollar less for classroom education and other government services.

Willie Pelote Sr., a lobbyist with the California branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for a bond that benefits farmers and Southern California cities.

"It's absolutely wrong and irresponsible," Pelote said.

Department of Water Resources director Lester Snow said the bond would stimulate the economy by encouraging local spending and jobs. Previous water bond dollars have led to an additional $2 to $3 in local construction spending, he said.

Associated Press Writer Judy Lin contributed to this report.

Reactions to water package

"I opposed the water package because it creates a new layer of bureaucrats who will make decisions on water that will impact the communities I represent, without allowing us to have a voice. I opposed the bond, especially because of the billions in pork for L.A. This dead-of-night pork giveaway is exactly why voters give us low marks.

"I offered up a simple bill — one to require a full analysis of the peripheral canal and require legislative approval — a common-sense approach. Unfortunately, my bill was killed without a hearing. I'll be resubmitting this bill so it will have a full debate."
— Assemblyman Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills


"Today's historic agreement is the most significant step that the state has taken in decades to invest in its crumbling water infrastructure. With this plan, we can improve the state's water supply and protect the environment without destroying our economy.

"This water agreement is especially critical for the Valley. In my district, agriculture is the No. 1 job creator, and the unemployment rate is higher than the state's average, largely due to this crisis.

"This comprehensive water plan will help reverse the tide that has forced farmers to fallow crops, which has caused out-of-work laborers who once fed the world to stand in food lines.

"This agreement also delivers on the expectation that California taxpayers have for lawmakers to put aside partisan differences to achieve common sense solutions that benefit the entire state."
— State Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto


"We opposed the package for a number of reasons. We feel the Delta Stewardship Council is a stacked deck like the Delta Risk Management Strategy and it is committed to building a peripheral canal or conveyance. There is no independent view on it. We would be happily surprised if an independent view occurred.

"We don't like the bond language and it appears that taxpayers will be paying for part or all of the conservation efforts. Contractors must be responsible for mitigating project impacts. It appears that the mitigation burden is being shifted onto taxpayers.

"It's not well-written or structured and it is not a solution for California's water troubles."
— Dante Nomellini, Central Delta Water Agency


"It's bad. These billion-dollar bond issues of the past decade have produced nothing. What do we have to show for it? The bonds are never project specific and the money just gets wasted. I'm going to get on my soapbox and say we should pass no more bond issues unless they are project specific.

"They need to indicate how much the project will cost, who it will benefit and where it will be before we pass a bond.

"The business as usual that comes out of Sacramento needs to stop. Stop throwing money at nothing."
— Ed Steffani, manager, North San Joaquin Water Conservation District


"Our leaders call it 'historic.' Gov. Schwarzenegger told a crowd at an electric vehicle plant in Stockton (Wednesday) that, 'We're going to fix the Delta and to build a canal around the Delta.'

"I do not believe the legislation contains adequate protections to ensure restoration and maintain the Delta's ecosystem, to guarantee Northern California's senior water rights or to enforce groundwater monitoring or diversions.

"Further, while urban water users are required to reduce usage by 20 percent by 2020, no targets are established for agriculture, and agriculture is responsible for 80 percent of all use.

"In the history of our state, canals and reservoirs have been paid by beneficiaries through revenue bonds, not from the state's general fund. This is true of the Oroville Dam, Central Valley Project, State Water Project and locally, the Los Vaqueros Reservoir."
— Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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