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CAPITOL JOURNAL

There's too much pork on the table

Gov. Brown and the Legislature need to trim the fat from the water bond and serve it to voters.

November 07, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • California Governor Jerry Brown holds a press conference in his Los Angeles office.
California Governor Jerry Brown holds a press conference in his Los Angeles… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

From Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown recently said, "I've got a lot on my plate." One item is a big slab of pork — formally called a water bond proposal.

The plate is shared with the Legislature.

Together, they must decide whether to serve up the bond whole to voters, trim it down first or shove it back in the fridge.

Or maybe they'll just toss it in the garbage. That's the most unlikely scenario. But voters might dump it for them if the bond isn't pared and recooked.

Let's back up.

After years of fighting — south vs. north, farmers vs. enviros, water buffaloes vs. fishing interests — then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature settled on an $11.14-billion water bond two years ago. It was passed by sleep-deprived lawmakers at dawn after an all-night session.

They initially placed the bond proposal on the November 2010 ballot. But water interests and politicians smelled trouble almost immediately. In order to secure the necessary two-thirds legislative vote, the governor and leaders had bought support the old-fashioned way: with pork payoffs.

They might have gotten away with it in normal times. But the economy was projected to still be in the tank in late 2010. Sacramento would be cutting education, slashing the poor people's safety net and closing parks. Voters probably would refuse to pig out on goodies they really didn't need.

So the bond vote was delayed until November 2012.

That's where it stands today. And little has changed. The economy still is stagnant. More state services are due to be slashed. The pork is smelly.

Pork like this: Bike trails, when local governments lack enough money to fill street potholes. Open-space purchases, while public parks are being closed. "Watershed education centers," as schools are being whacked and tuitions are soaring.

The bond is really larded up: $10 million for "climate change planning," $50 million for river parkways, $75 million for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Remember, this is supposed to be a water bond — strategically titled by the Legislature: "Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act."

There must be at least $2 billion worth of fatback. Add to that $455 million for "drought relief." Save the money. The drought's long over.

Big reservoirs up and down the Sierra currently range from more than half- to three-quarters full — which, for this time of year, is 115% to nearly 160% of average. That water surplus makes the bond even less likely to pass next November.

Don't get me wrong. There's plenty of good stuff in the bond, long-overdue projects to update California's deteriorated plumbing.

There's $3 billion for new water storage, including a dam or two. There's $2.3 billion to upgrade the stressed Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, California's main water hub, and restore its fishery. There's $1 billion for water recycling and well-water cleanup.

The bond was one part of a two-piece package of landmark water legislation.

The second part — which didn't need voter approval — created a new, streamlined governing structure for the Delta. It provided a pathway toward probable construction of a tunnel or canal carrying fresh Sacramento River water around the saline Delta and directly into a southbound aqueduct. It required water conservation and groundwater monitoring.

Most of the second part ultimately will require some bond money to implement. Not the tunnel or canal, however. That multibillion-dollar project would be financed solely by the water users, not by all California taxpayers.

But taxpayers would pay off the water bond. Figure $780 million per year for 30 years.

"Beneficiary pays" — in this case, water users — is a concept many assert there should be more of in the bond proposal. The original State Water Project was 95% financed by water users.

In the current proposal, up to half the new water storage — and all the remaining projects — would be paid for by taxpayers through the state's deficit-plagued General Fund.

Water interests argue that's fair because much of the newly developed water would benefit the entire public.

But wait! The Delta was screwed up mostly by pumping water out of it for farms and cities. So, seems to me, the water users should pay for repairing their damage.

Also, specific regions that make out from the bond should pay for their own benefits.

At least one water bond supporter agrees with the "beneficiary pays" concept and would like to see the proposal reshaped.

Jim Earp, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs — a contractors-labor coalition — says that when people are forced to pay for their own benefits, "they really start sharpening the pencil. They become a lot more frugal."

In the Capitol, there are three schools of thought: Allow the bond to go on the ballot as is and if the voters balk, so be it. Reduce its size and change the financing. Hold it back for the 2014 election.

Shoving it in the fridge is the least popular idea.

"It's the bond that can't win and won't be allowed to die," complains Assembly water committee chairman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), an opponent. "It has created paralysis in our ability to do anything else. California needs a water bond, but it needs a smart water bond."

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) says it's the governor's call. If Brown really wants to renegotiate the bond — and he apparently does — Pérez says he'll help. But that would require another two-thirds vote, and "it's never easy. This one took years and years."

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) suggests simply cutting everything equally — the priorities and the pork — and whittling the bond down to the $7-billion range.

This pork bond is probably indigestible. It needs a sharp knife and more cooking. Then it should be dished up next November.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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