Grappling with the water bond

Sacramento River - Photo by Steve Martarano, USFWS

“Steinberg said it was conceivable that the bond could be reduced to $7 billion to $8 billion, but raised doubts about whether the proposal could be substantially rewritten. “All this needs to be backed up by policy and research,” he added.”

An $11 billion water bond facing voters on the November ballot likely will be rewritten, downsized or delayed two years – 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 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.

But 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.

Steinberg said it was conceivable that the bond could be reduced to $7 billion to $8 billion, but raised doubts about whether the proposal could be substantially rewritten.

“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.

 

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