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Lawmakers Plan Water Bond Vote As Talks Continue

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SACRAMENTO (AP) – Pressed by a deadline and California’s severe drought, state lawmakers are scheduled to vote Wednesday on a measure that would swap out an existing water bond on the November ballot and authorize billions in borrowing to pay for new reservoirs, groundwater cleanup and habitat restoration.

Lawmakers had not yet reached an agreement that could win the two-thirds support required for the measure to pass. Some Republican votes are needed in the Senate, where Democrats fall short of a supermajority, and the GOP is holding out for more money dedicated to building new reservoirs.

Republican legislative leaders had negotiated with Gov. Jerry Brown into Tuesday evening without success.

“My understanding is there is still no white smoke coming out of the basilica,” said Senate Republican caucus spokesman Peter DeMarco.

He said Republican lawmakers are maintaining their stance that more money is needed in the bond for water storage projects to act as a hedge against future droughts.

The Senate and Assembly announced that floor debates on a water bond would begin in early afternoon, but that depends on Democrats, Republicans and the governor reaching a deal.

Earlier this week, the governor and Democratic legislative leaders had agreed on a $7.2 billion package to replace the existing, $11.1 billion bond.

“This is a very balanced, integrated plan,” Brown said Tuesday, seated at a table surrounded by representatives from supportive business, agriculture and environmental groups. “It’s not a grab bag.”

GOP leaders and some Central Valley Democrats want $3 billion to create more water storage, including a new reservoir in Colusa County and another in the Sierra Nevada northeast of Fresno. The Democratic proposal is $500 million short of that total.

“It does no good to only build half a dam,” Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff said in a statement.

Successfully passing a water bond has been an elusive goal for state leaders. The measure already on the ballot was a bipartisan compromise negotiated in 2009 under then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger but was pulled twice from previous ballots.

Lawmakers and Brown’s administration saw it as a ballot box loser because of its cost and because it was stuffed with money for special interest projects.

The push to revamp the measure this year has been driven by the state’s worst drought in a generation, forcing farmers to fallow fields and local governments to mandate water restrictions.

Provisions in the latest bond proposal involving water recycling and cleanup of contaminated groundwater could increase the availability of water during future droughts. The bond also includes other water projects not directly related to supply, such as watershed improvements and flood management.

Lawmakers have been struggling to find money to meet the demands of constituents and powerful interest groups across the state while heeding the governor’s call to minimize state debt.

“We have all stretched to compromise to meet the need for a cost we think we can bear as a state,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

Some legislators are criticizing the 11th hour nature of the negotiations, marked by closed-door meetings and suspended rules.

Lawmakers already are two months passed the deadline for passing a ballot measure. Wednesday’s scheduled vote is timed to the secretary of state’s deadline for printing voter pamphlets, which lawmakers and Brown pushed back by two days.

“Where have we been and where has the administration been since January?” said Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, before the vote to extend the deadline. “This water crisis has been around these many months.”

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Fenit Nirappil can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/FenitN.

 

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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