Reporting from Sacramento — After an exhausting political fight to put an $11.1-billion plan for shoring up the state's water supply before voters, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now wants to yank the measure from the November ballot.
The governor is working with legislative leaders to postpone the water bond proposal as its prospects appear increasingly dim. Polls suggest voters may not have the appetite for such borrowing at a time when the state budget is in continuing crisis.
And the governor's vow to aggressively fight another measure on the November ballot, one that would roll back the landmark global warming bill he signed in 2006, threatens to distract from the effort to get the water bond passed.
Schwarzenegger said Tuesday in a statement that he would try to get the two-thirds vote of the Legislature needed to pull the bond measure, Proposition 18, from the ballot and take it to voters in 2012 instead.
"After reviewing the agenda for this year, I believe our focus should be on the budget — solving the deficit, reforming out-of-control pension costs and fixing our broken budget system," the statement said. "It's critical that the water bond pass.... I will work with the Legislature to postpone the bond to 2012 and avoid jeopardizing its passage."
The measure would pay for infrastructure to provide more clean and reliable water for the state. It was passed by the Legislature in November 2009, after months of difficult wrangling among farmers, environmentalists, water agencies and lawmakers.
The challenge of getting voters to support the package, which opponents said was filled with pork projects inserted by lawmakers, seems to grow with the state's financial problems.
On Tuesday, the powerful California Teachers Assn., whose members could be hit hard by further budget cuts, announced that it was opposing the bond measure. The well-funded union could pour large amounts of cash into a campaign against the proposal.
"With an already outrageous budget deficit, California can't afford" the cost of the borrowing, "taking even more money away from our students, our schools and other essential services,'' said David Sanchez, president of the teachers union.
The last major poll of voters' opinions on the bond package found it slipping. The Public Policy Institute of California survey, released May 18, showed that 42% of those surveyed considered it "very important" that the package pass, down from 47% in December.
In addition, backers face the daunting task of mounting a significant campaign for the bond while the governor is distracted by fighting Proposition 23, the measure that would suspend the global warming law.
Mario Santoyo, director of the California Latino Water Coalition, which is allied with Schwarzenegger and has worked for years to get the water bond to the ballot, said the group is "completely disappointed."
He also said that with the governor and some legislative backers of the bond leaving office this year, it could complicate efforts to get the borrowing approved in two years.
Schwarzenegger's move, however, is backed by legislative leaders, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D- Sacramento), who helped craft the package and lobbied his colleagues hard to support it.
"Given the challenges currently facing California, I agree with the governor," Steinberg said in a statement.
Some opponents of the package seized on the postponement as evidence of its inadequacy.
Sen. Lois Wolk (D- Davis), who said she voted against placing the measure on the ballot because it is "full of pork," said she will now vote against moving it to 2012.
"This is a recognition that this is fiscally irresponsible, and it will not get any better with age," she said.
Jim Metropulos, a lobbyist with Sierra Club California, called on lawmakers to abandon the package as written and start over.
"Even if it is delayed to a future ballot, it will continue to be a bad back-room deal, hatched in the dark of the night and loaded up with billions of dollars in pork projects to buy off votes," he said.