A proposed tax on California's drinking water, designed to clean up contaminated water for thousands of Californians, was abandoned by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders Friday as part of the compromise on the state budget.
Lawmakers and Brown's office scrapped the "Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act," which would have taxed residents 95 cents a month to raise millions for cleaning toxic wells. Instead, legislative leaders agreed to spend $5 million from the general fund to deal with lead in drinking water at child care centers. They also plan to allocate $23.5 million from the general fund for "safe drinking water actions later in this legislative session," according to a Legislative Budget Conference Committee report released Friday.
The tax would have raised an estimated $140 million a year to address a massive statewide problem. About 360,000 Californians are served by water systems that violate state standards for nitrates, arsenic, uranium and other pollutants, according to a recent McClatchy investigation. The issue is concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley, although at least one supplier in 38 of the state's 58 counties is out of compliance.
The abandonment of the proposed tax was disclosed in the conference committee's report released soon after the Governor's Office announced that a deal had been reached with legislative leaders on a new budget.
Brown's administration said it hasn't given up on passing a drinking water tax at some point. "The Legislature has indicated a commitment to continue discussions this summer," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for Brown's Department of Finance, in an email. "They recognize that this is a very important issue that will take some more time to work through."
Residents would have been taxed 95 cents a month, or $11.40 a year, to raise about $110 million a year for cleanup. Agriculture would have contributed another $30 million a year through fees on fertilizer purchases and feedlot and dairy production.
The bill was opposed by the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents more than 400 urban and agricultural water suppliers, and it became clear that finding the two-thirds supermajority needed to impose the tax was proving difficult in an election year.
Many legislators have become wary of approving new taxes, fearing a backlash. Voters in Southern California on Tuesday recalled state Sen. Josh Newman, D-San Dimas, after opponents ran a campaign that highlighted his vote for a new gas tax last year.
In a budget conference committee meeting earlier this week, legislators expressed skepticism that voters would embrace the new tax.
Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, for instance, noted that taxpayers in his district were coping with recently increased water rates. He believed they would oppose a new fee for safe drinking water that largely would help another part of the state.
"They're going to spend a dollar a month to (go) where, Eureka? Nothing against Eureka, but I doubt people know where that is," he said.
He argued water districts would be better off throwing in together and proposing regional fees to address their problems. "This really is not about giving a bunch of money to the state of California," he said. "It's more about mutual aid and helping your neighbor get clean water."
While disappointed, supporters of the water tax held out hope that lawmakers will approve the plan at some point. "We are confident the governor and Legislature will not walk away from creating a permanent source of funding," said Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center, an advocacy group.
California voters on Tuesday approved Proposition 68, a parks-and-water bond that includes $250 million to clean up unsafe drinking water systems. And a proposition on the November ballot would provide another $500 million for addressing the issue.
But Brown's administration had argued that more money was needed, and the drinking water tax was the right solution. The tax was introduced a year ago as SB 623 but stalled. It was revived earlier this year by Brown as a budget trailer bill. It was the trailer bill that was abandoned Friday.