Capitol Alert

California rejects measure that threatened water tunnels project

Dean Cortopassi talks to The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board on Aug. 17, 2016.
Dean Cortopassi talks to The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board on Aug. 17, 2016. The Sacramento Bee file

California voters have rejected Proposition 53, a November measure to limit the state’s use of revenue bonds to pay for large public works projects that could have undermined Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed twin water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The ballot measure was trailing by more than 200,000 votes, or 49 percent to 51 percent, when The Associated Press called the race Tuesday night after two weeks of counting late-arriving mail and provisional ballots.

“The defeat of Proposition 53 is good news for California and our future. It means one less roadblock in the way of solving our water and transportation problems,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday evening.

Yes on 53 spokeswoman Marie Brichetto said the campaign was not yet conceding: “The Yes on 53 campaign is waiting for the votes to be counted. There are still over 1.7 million ballots that need to be counted and the race is very close,” she said in a statement.

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Proposition 53, which would have required voter approval before California could sell more than $2 billion in revenue bonds for a state project, was championed by wealthy Stockton-area food processor Dean Cortopassi, a vocal critic of Brown’s tunnels plan.

Decrying the drag of debt on state finances and future generations, Cortopassi and his wife, Joan, poured more than $5 million into qualifying and passing the measure. State records show no other contributors to the campaign.

With two of his legacy projects – the tunnels and the high-speed rail system – threatened by the initiative, Brown came out forcefully against Proposition 53 in the final weeks of the election, appearing in television advertisements that aired across the state. He proved instrumental in defeating the measure, which led by a wide margin before he began campaigning against it.

In addition to $4.1 million that Brown gave to the No on 53 effort, including a $2.4 million loan, the campaign drew financial backing from a wide range of businesses, unions, American Indian tribes and others. In the final month alone, No on 53 raised $20 million, state filings show.

“Taken as a whole, the No on 53 campaign seemed analogous to German Panzer Divisions waging ‘Blitzkrieg’ on Poland in 1939,” Cortopassi complained in a statement after the election.

The measure’s failure keeps intact Brown’s unblemished record in ballot fights: Four years ago, he muscled though a temporary sales and income tax hike, Proposition 30, that provided considerable breathing room in the state budget.

He returned two years later with successful statewide measures to authorize a $7 billion water bond and institute a rainy-day budget reserve.

Along with stopping Cortopassi this year, Brown pushed a broad overhaul of criminal sentencing that will allow parole for inmates whose crimes the state considers nonviolent. Brown’s Proposition 57 passed with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 7:45 p.m. Nov. 22 to include the statement from Gov. Jerry Brown.

Jim Miller and Christopher Cadelago of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff.