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Meg Whitman is doing her homework

Despite some gaffes, the Republican gubernatorial candidate shows she's learning the inner workings of the office, including the ability to pare pork from the $11.1-billion water bond proposal.

March 31, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Meg Whitman supports water bonds, saying that as governor she could eliminate some of the pork. Rival Steve Poizner says he would scrap the project.
Meg Whitman supports water bonds, saying that as governor she could eliminate… (Bret Hartman/For The Times )

Give Meg Whitman some credit. She's listening and reading up -- trying to learn about being governor of California.

True, she occasionally shows her political naivete. A good example was when the former EBay chief last week suggested that as governor she'd organize the Legislature into "teams." A "jobs team," a "government efficiency team."

As any high schooler knows -- or should -- a governor doesn't organize anything in the Legislature. It's a separate, equal branch of government. And, like the executive, it jealously guards its turf.

Anyway, the Legislature already has teams. They're called committees.

But this column really isn't about basic civics.

It's about water -- specifically the gubernatorial candidates' stands on the most important state water bond proposal in 50 years. And it's also about how political novice Whitman has done her homework and knew something few others did. At least, I didn't.

To back up, the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger compromised last fall on an $11.1-billion water bond proposal for next November's ballot.

Part of a comprehensive package of waterworks repairs and remodeling, the bond would authorize borrowing for new dams, underground storage, delta ecological restoration, groundwater cleanup, recycling -- and slices of pork, such as bike trails and "watershed education centers."

In a recent interview, Whitman told me she supports the bond despite the pork. If elected governor, the Republican front-runner asserted, she'll pare the pork with her "blue pencil" -- or line-item veto power.

"It is not a perfect bill by any stretch of the imagination," she said. "There's probably $2 to $3 billion worth of pork. But as I look at the water situation, here is a perfect example of our lack of investment in infrastructure that was built for a population half our size."

Don't let "perfect be the enemy of progress," she continued. "If we throw this hard-won negotiation out the door, we're going to be having the same conversation five years from now, 10 years from now.

"And what I will try to do if I am governor, I will try to blue-line as much as I can out of this bill before it gets funded. . . ."

Hold on, I interrupted. A governor can do that?

"You can," she insisted. "You can eliminate not everything, but some of the pork. I actually looked into this."

But isn't that an affront to the voters who approved the bond in its entirety?

"Ummmm. I don't think so, actually. The truth is we've got to look for cost savings everywhere. Business as usual is not going to be good enough. If we can take $1 billion out of the cost of the bond and still get most of what we wanted, that's the right thing for voters."

Still skeptical, I called the state Department of Finance. Staffers had never heard of such a thing. (And neither has anyone else I've talked to.) But a finance department lawyer confirmed Whitman's view.

Citing the state Constitution, the lawyer pointed out that not only can the governor and Legislature reduce a bond's size after its approval by the electorate, they can repeal the whole thing. But it depends on the bond.

The governor's blue pencil can work only if the bond goes through the normal legislative appropriation process. But if there's a "continuous appropriation" clause, the money escapes the Legislature and governor.

The water bond is a hybrid. A $3-billion piece for water storage would be "continuously appropriated" and go directly to the state water commission for spending. The remaining $8 billion would be subject to legislative appropriation.

Whitman's underdog rival for the Republican nomination, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, opposes not only the smelly pork, but the entire bond proposal.

"It contains at least $2 billion in pork," he says. "The Legislature could fix it. And they should."

But there'd still be "way, way too much debt in this state," Poizner continues, "And in the middle of this financial meltdown, we can't just simply look the other way on bonds. . . . At what point do you say enough is enough? We're out of money. We have this $20-billion budget deficit.

"I would freeze all debt. I wouldn't authorize any more debt until we balanced the budget. Because the budget deficit problem is a catastrophe of epic proportions."

The state general fund will cough up $5.2 billion in the current fiscal year for bond payments, according to Treasurer Bill Lockyer. That's roughly 6% of the fund's total. Lockyer has estimated that if the water bond passes, annual payments will rise to $10 billion by 2013, or 11% of the general fund.

The state is paying on $69 billion in infrastructure bonds and has voter authorization for an additional, unsold $42 billion.

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