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So many urgent projects await a budget solution

February 05, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Stuff's piling up in California's Capitol: "To-Do" lists crammed with issues labeled "Attention Required" and "Decision Needed."

But the principal decision-makers -- the governor and legislative leaders, or "Big Five" -- have been immersed in a gigantic deficit hole, agonizing over how to get the state out. They need a solution that can be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, a Herculean hurdle.

Meantime, everything else waits: water system upgrades, overcrowded prisons, other public works, healthcare, education. . . .

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters:

"I think that the legislators and the governor's office can work on more important things than just spend three months every year . . . like we did this last summer . . . on the budget, where we should have really negotiated about water to protect California . . . or to build more infrastructure, or fix our education system and so on. We get stuck every year with the same thing."

That complaint came from the governor more than a year ago.

Since then, the budget deficit has grown much deeper and the Capitol's preoccupation with it all-consuming.

"The reality is that our state is incapacitated until we solve the budget crisis," Schwarzenegger observed in his State of the State address three weeks ago. "The $42-billion deficit is a rock upon our chest."

When a balanced budget finally is negotiated and "some of the raw emotions have passed," the governor continued, he will send the Legislature his policy agenda. "These proposals are sitting on my desk right now. And let me tell you, I have big plans for this state. They include action on the economy, on water, the environment, education and healthcare reform, government efficiency. . . ."

For now, however, it's all moot.

New Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) had ambitious plans when he took over his legislative house in December. "Let's shake it up here. Let's turn it around," he exhorted his colleagues. "Let's demonstrate some early, big successes."

So far no successes, big or little.

Steinberg had hoped -- and still does -- to pass legislation guaranteeing medical insurance for all California children. An estimated 600,000 are uncovered. He and Schwarzenegger were probably going to team up on that effort. They still might.

"There are many reasons why we need to get this [budget agreement] done and done now," Steinberg says. "There's the fiscal crisis. But there's also another reason. We want to start focusing on a positive agenda for California and not just be mired week after week in crisis."

More than two years ago, voters approved $42 billion in bonds to build infrastructure for transportation, housing, schools, flood control, water and parks. Ordinarily, that would be an economic stimulus. But little has been built; only $4 billion spent. Projects have been halted because of the cash crunch. And the state can't find bond-buyers until it becomes more fiscally sound.

The Legislature, for years, has procrastinated pathetically on water.

Nature seems to be producing the third straight year of drought. The Sierra snowpack is only 61% of normal. And the Legislature hasn't prepared us for it.

"It's shaping up to be one of the worst droughts ever," says Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources. "We won't be able to tell until we get to the end of March. That's when there's no hope of a big storm coming in and saving us."

Rationing would be a certainty. So would increased water marketing -- one entity selling its water to another. Snow says the administration may ask for emergency legislation to "restructure" water rights and alter pricing to discourage consumption.

"The reason the drought impact would be so severe is we keep putting off these investments in our water system," Snow says. "Our demand keeps getting greater and environmental restrictions have increased. That means very dire economic consequences."

Schwarzenegger for two years has been trying to create a $10-billion water bond proposal. It could include money for storage -- underground and in reservoirs -- wastewater recycling, desalination, conservation and new plumbing for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But Democrats and environmentalists have balked at new dams, and Republicans and farmers have blocked anything that doesn't include a reservoir or two. And there's still no consensus on a delta fix.

Meanwhile, the administration wants the Legislature to pass a bill requiring a 20% cut in urban water use by 2020.

Prisons need urgent attention.

The state -- led by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and Schwarzenegger -- is in a nasty fight with a prison healthcare overseer appointed by a federal judge. The overseer, law professor J. Clark Kelso, essentially wants to back a federal truck up to the state vault and haul off $8 billion to build what Brown calls "gold-plated utopian" hospital facilities for prisoners.

He'll "never get that money," Schwarzenegger vowed last week.

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