By Jim Mayer
Six months ago, few people seriously thought there would be talk about a 2014 water bond, except the need to remove or postpone again the controversial measure now slated for the November ballot.
But last fall, public opinion polling showed that voters were starting to renew their trust in lawmakers when it came to spending their money. That may be due to a combination of reforms, including simple majority vote to pass the budget, which eliminated partisan stalemates; temporary tax increases and a recovering economy that reduced the red ink; and, good old-fashioned fiscal discipline imposed largely by the governor.
This rebounding trust was detected before the drought worsened and water rose to the top of the political agenda.
Now that spring is officially here, it is beginning to feel like summer in Sacramento, and it won’t be long before lawmakers will need to vote on what — if anything — will be on the November ballot.
Because it is a general obligation bond, the measure must be approved by voters. So in voting their own preferences, lawmakers also must keep in mind what voters will approve, as well.
This is where good policy can make good politics — provided we are talking about the politics of the people. Here are three criteria based on California Forward’s fiscal reform principles and extensive civic engagements, including the California Economic Summit:
* How much water will the water bond buy?
If lawmakers think drought is a good time to borrow money to pay for public projects, they need a good answer to that question.
It is probably unreasonable to expect there to be a number in gallons. While some lawmakers are fighting to keep pork out of the pot, there surely will be some in the final bond — bike trails, museums, swimming pools, the kinds of projects that soured the public to the current bond measure.
Still, there should be assurances that the billions spent will be spent on projects that directly increase water supplies and reliability, or heal environmental damage caused by existing or future water supply projects.
Unfortunately, this measure is not a financing plan for an agreed-upon package of public works that will cost-effectively increase sustainability. Rather, the approach is to put money into the system with the expectation it will produce water and fish.
So to bolster the public’s well-founded skepticism, lawmakers need to be extraordinarily diligent in defining the state’s priorities for water projects — and determining who will make the decisions regarding how the money will be spent.
One way would be to specify a competitive process that allocated money based on how much water the projects will conserve, store or deliver. It is clearly more complicated than that, but the details should be limited to further achieving that topline outcome.
* Will the projects be economically efficient, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable?
California is a legitimate leader in defining a future of integrated or multi-benefit approaches to water development. We simply can no longer afford to try to manage watersheds, storm water, groundwater aquifers and water supply systems as if they are separate problems with separate answers managed by separate government agencies. It’s water.
So the water bond should fund projects — determined through this competitive process — that provide multiple benefits, as measured by triple-bottom-line outcomes.
The state has allocated millions and millions of dollars to encourage integrated water planning by regions. Requiring bond funds to go to projects that achieve multiple benefits will give a big incentive to government agencies to truly cooperate and solve problems they cannot solve by themselves — whether it is state conservancies working with water districts or community-based organizations partnering with cities. Or, even better, all of the above.
Crafted right, the bond measure should ensure collaboration, multiple benefits and deliver the promised outcomes.
* Will there be public accountability for results?
While lawmakers won’t be able to tell us before we vote how much water we are buying, they should be prepared to tell us what types of projects we’re investing in — and what else we purchased along the way (even if it’s a few parks and swimming pools) — before they put another water bond on the ballot.
The Legislature also must ensure that the final bond includes a transparent process for tracking the billions of dollars being spent: Was the money invested in a timely way? Was the process competitive? Did funds go to multi-benefit projects? How much water — or habitat or fish — did we buy?
Remember, the reason voters get to pass judgment is because general obligation bonds are repaid from the general fund. So every dime spent — either on projects or on the interest — could have been spent on services for the elderly, or at-risk youths or mental health for the homeless.
The urgency of the drought has made it easier to make this case: It has raised voters’ awareness about the importance of water — and how wise investments can improve water quality and reliability, restore environmental damage caused by the existing water system, and provide a sturdier foundation for the state’s economy.
The final bond measure must take all of these steps. But to win voters’ approval, it also must show exactly how it will get us there.
— Jim Mayer is president and CEO of California Forward and a board member of the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.