SACRAMENTO — Making good on a longtime debt, the state is poised to repay more than $17 million it owes Orange County for the massive Santa Ana flood control project.
The money, expected to be approved by the Legislature next week as part of the state budget, represents the first of four annual payments that will close out the state's $70 million debt to the county.
In recent years, Orange County has picked up nearly all of the state's share of the Santa Ana River project to ensure there were no delays in the work, which is intended to prevent what experts say is the worst flood threat west of the Mississippi.
The county's legislative delegation has tried for years to get the state to repay the delinquent bills. Now, with the state flush with cash, Senate GOP Leader Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) got Democrats to agree to a four-year payment plan during budget talks this week.
"It's a huge win to get the state to finally fulfill its obligations to this project," said Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Anaheim), who also pushed for the repayment. "The state has hardly paid any of its share over the past decade."
Johnson and Gov. Pete Wilson initially tried to get the entire debt paid off this year, but Democratic leaders participating in the budget talks balked.
Some Republican insiders suggested that Democrats stood in the way of a one-year repayment because they didn't want Orange County, which is dominated by Republicans, to score too big a victory.
Richard Zeiger, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), said the Santa Ana River flood project "was certainly not at the top of our priority list."
Others said partisan politics didn't come into play.
Sandy Harrison, a spokesman for Senate Leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), said it was "purely an economic matter" and that "it had nothing to do with Orange County or Republicans."
Orange County officials were pleased to see at least some of the money poised to be paid back.
"We appreciate the work done by the Orange County delegation in getting us this money," said Rob Richardson, the county's legislative affairs manager. But he added that "if there's any way possible to get the rest of the money inside of four years, we'll be happy to get it."