Capitol Alert

Tax on California water revived to clean up drinking water – but it’s voluntary

Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers are rebooting an effort to pass a new tax to attack unsafe drinking water in California.

But there’s a twist: The proposed tax on water bills would be voluntary, increasing its chances of success among skittish lawmakers in an election year.

After calling off a plan in June to apply a mandatory tax on water bills, the governor is backing a new pair of bills that would apply a voluntary levy on ratepayers to fund safe drinking water projects. Senate Bill 844 and 845, introduced by Sen. Bill Monning, would also raise taxes on dairies and fertilizer manufacturers.

Supporters expect the bills to generate as much as $100 million per year and cost most homeowners no more 95 cents per month, money that would be prioritized to areas with the highest risk.

“These bills are now the Legislature’s best opportunity to bring clean and safe drinking water to the nearly 1 million Californians who cannot drink the water that comes out of their faucets,” said Monning, a Carmel Democrat.

The state has reported that more than 1 million residents face potential exposure to unsafe water, largely in low-income communities without the funding to fix the problems. A 2018 McClatchy investigation similarly found that 360,000 Californians are served by water systems that violate state standards for nitrates, arsenic, uranium and other pollutants.

“Safe, clean drinking water is a necessity for all California families, but many lack this essential, human need,” said Ali Bay, deputy press secretary for Brown. She said Brown supports the current language in the bills, which “reflects the conversations our office and stakeholders have had in recent months to reach consensus on this issue.”

Brown and members of the Legislature paused a years-long efforts to pass the mandatory tax during budget negotiations earlier this summer. At the time, they settled for $5 million from the general fund for drinking water projects at child care centers, planned to allocate another $23.5 million for safe drinking water projects this session and continue conversations.

State lawmakers are hesitant to support any new tax increase after Republicans successfully recalled Sen. Josh Newman in June, linking the Fullerton Democrat to the $52 billion gas tax to fund road repairs from 2017.

SB 845 establishes the voluntary tax on water bills and would only require support from a majority of state lawmakers. The mandatory tax on dairy producers and fertilizer manufacturers in SB 844 must meet a higher two-thirds vote threshold.

SB 845 would require community water systems to apply a “voluntary remittance to provide safe drinking water to disadvantaged communities” on each customer’s bill by July 1, 2019. Customers would have to opt-out of the fee, a concept criticized for unfairly taxing uninformed ratepayers.

“The whole point of this effort is to guarantee that all Californians, but particularly low-income communities and communities of color that have been disproportionally impacted by unsafe drinking water, can finally have their basic human right to water met in the richest country in the world,” said Jonathan Nelson, policy director for the Community Water Center.

The state water board would develop best practices on how to collect the money.

The center is among a coalition of more than 100 supporters that includes labor icon Dolores Huerta, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, California Water Service, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Agricultural Council of California and Western United Dairymen.

The Association of California Water Agencies opposes the measures.

With two weeks left in the legislative session, Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly are taking a low-key approach to the proposals.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s Office said they are reviewing the bills and did not have a position. A spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins did not provide a comment.

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