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Voters want a no-pork diet

November 19, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — No matter how clever and careful the writer, on occasion a work should be ripped up and retooled. That also goes for writers of legislation.

A prime example: Sacramento's new state water bond proposal. Granted, this bloated $11.1-billion bond is laced with humor: A waterworks package that provides borrowed money -- at twice the ticket price, counting interest -- for building bike trails, buying open space and developing "watershed education centers."

OK, it is not funny. It's politics. It's pork.

And Californians, I'm guessing, won't see any humor in it at all when they vote next November on the proposed bond -- if it's still the same overstuffed measure that the Legislature passed after an all-night session on Nov. 4.

If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators aren't up to a rewrite job, the very least they should do is stash their creation on a shelf and not show it again until the 2012 election. Perhaps by then, the economy will have rebounded and voters will be in a less grumpy mood about the state and the politicians.

The fact is, much of this bond proposal -- for new water storage, delta ecological restoration, groundwater cleanup, recycling -- is vitally needed in a state that hasn't repaired and updated its rusted plumbing in 50 years.

But the entire bond, with its red-flagged slices of pork, is probably too much for voters to swallow in hard times. Water leaders shouldn't chance it.

Right now -- and for the foreseeable future -- this governor and these legislators couldn't sell water in Death Valley. And there's no reason to think they could sell pieces of putrid pork to people anywhere.

"All you have to do is walk down the street and see the boarded-up restaurants and other businesses that are cutting back to know that the economy is still in the tank and water is not going to be real high on the voters' priority list," says veteran political consultant Ray McNally. "They're afraid of the future and are furious with government.

"Voters have become so weary and so cynical that if you try to slide some pork by them, chances are they're going to see it and reject it. They are in no mood to be trifled with. Voters are setting priorities even if elected officials don't seem willing to do that."

A little disclosure: One of McNally's major clients is the prison guards union. Public employee unions generally are leery of new bond issues that would place more strain on the general fund for debt repayment and leave less money for government workers.

But that's a political reality bond proponents must face. Unions are capable of spending millions to defeat a ballot measure they oppose. And pork provides an easy target.

The powerful California Teachers Assn., for one, objects to the water bond, which ultimately could cost the general fund from $725 million to $800 million annually in debt service.

"Last time I checked, we didn't have any general fund money," says Willie L. Pelote Sr., Sacramento lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which hasn't taken a position on the bond. "It doesn't make sense."

Even if the economy is rebounding next November, it's doubtful the state budget will be.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst punctuated the point Wednesday, forecasting that lawmakers will need to fill another general fund hole of nearly $21 billion by the time they pass a new state budget next summer. Analyst Mac Taylor warned of "painful choices -- on top of the difficult choices the Legislature made earlier this year."

That means parading out the usual victims -- students, poor kids, the disabled, plus civil servants and the courts -- and slashing again. Maybe even releasing prisoners.

Meanwhile, out of total general fund expenditures estimated by Taylor at $89 billion this fiscal year, the state is spending $6 billion just paying off general obligation bonds.

If the water bonds are passed, payments will climb to $7.6 billion in fiscal year 2011-12 and $9.6 billion in 2014-15, amounting to average annual growth of 8.4%.

How much of that is for pork is subjective. One person's pork is another's priority project.

"Not too many people around San Francisco Bay care about restoring the L.A. River, but people in L.A. don't think doing San Francisco Bay restoration is that high a priority either," says consultant Joe Caves, a veteran of water bond issues and a renowned pork chef.

Caves helped write the water bond and reports there's roughly $150 million in it for the L.A. River watershed and $250 million for San Francisco Bay projects.

"In the final day of negotiations," says Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine), "the bond's value grew by $100 million an hour. They really larded it up." He voted against the bill.

Pork isn't prepared just to entice legislators' support. It's also served up to lure voters.

"To have statewide support, each region of the state wants to see their own water issues addressed," Caves says. "Every region is pretty parochial about that."

It's a time-honored strategy: Dangle local projects to attract voters. And restoration of waterways isn't necessarily pork.

But I can't see voters buying bike trails when local governments lack enough money to fill street potholes. It also seems nonsensical to purchase open space while state parks are partially closing.

And "watershed education centers" probably won't seem as important next November as keeping class sizes manageable, not to mention sports programs operating. Or controlling embarrassingly high university fees.

Few things have ever been written that couldn't be pared and improved. The authors should clean up the water bond. It's likely the current version would get a rejection slip.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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