Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California politicians trying to draft a new water bond

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

With the state budget behind them, the Capitol’s politicians are turning to water, always California’s most divisive political issue – but particularly so during a very severe drought, as a state Senate debate and vote demonstrated Monday.

They are trying – some harder than others – to write a new water bond to replace an $11.1 billion proposal placed on the ballot in 2009 but already postponed twice and widely believed to face voter rejection.

Six would-be successors are floating around the Capitol while private negotiations among politicians and myriad stakeholders seek a magic mix that could win two-thirds legislative votes and stand a decent chance of voter approval.

A $10.5 billion version stalled Monday in the Senate, falling five votes short as Republicans refused to vote for it. Anticipating the outcome, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said during the debate, “It’s not a loss. It’s the beginning … of successful negotiations.”

Gov. Jerry Brown, seeking re-election as a debt-reduction zealot, has been clearly reluctant to have any debt-increasing bond on the ballot, either for water or schools.

There’s also an unspoken concern that a water bond could become a referendum on his controversial project to bore twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to enhance water deliveries south of the Delta.

As the drought worsened and voters looked to Sacramento for response, Brown’s reluctance faded. However, he apparently has told the Legislature little other than that he wants the bond to be as small as possible, and that may mean all current versions are too big for his taste.

Water politics also changed when three Democratic senators were suspended while facing criminal charges, thus erasing their party’s supermajority and forcing Democrats to seek Republican votes by including $3 billion for storage in their bond.

Steinberg told the Senate on Monday that Senate Bill 848 is “tunnel-neutral” and therefore doesn’t stoke a north-south tunnel conflict that, polls say, would doom voter passage – although it contains funds for Delta habitat restoration, which is an ancillary part of the tunnel plan.

Steinberg also proclaimed it to be free of gratuitous pork, believed to be one of the negative elements of the 2009 bond.

However, while some pork has been excised, such as a Southern California park sought by former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, the Senate bond still has $250 million to demolish four obsolete, fish-killing power dams on the Klamath River owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp utility.

Meanwhile, the Assembly is noodling with bonds that appear to be more closely tied to the tunnels.

The many moving parts demonstrate anew what decades of water politics have proved – any change that gains support from one set of interests often raises opposition from others.