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Water bond measure fails in initial Senate vote

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From page A2 | June 24, 2014 |

SACRAMENTO (AP) — Senate Democrats on Monday failed in an initial attempt to secure Republican support for overhauling the $11.1 billion water bond on the November ballot.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg brought the legislation to a vote because he said he wanted to force “an honest public discussion” about how to improve water supply in California, which is in a drought after three relatively dry years.

SB848 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, fell short of the required two-thirds majority vote needed to pass, but it’s not dead. After it failed 22-9, Wolk made a procedural move that will allow the bill to be reconsidered later in the summer.

The measure also lacked Gov. Jerry Brown’s support. Steinberg said the governor prefers a smaller bond.

“The governor is concerned about ongoing debt service and its impact on future budgets,” said the governor’s spokesman, Jim Evans.

Democrats say voters are likely to reject the existing ballot measure if it remains on the general election ballot because it is perceived as containing too much special interest pork and being too supportive of a contentious tunnel project to divert water from the Northern California delta to farms and residents in the south.

The Legislature passed the current water bond in 2009 but has delayed it from going before voters twice out of fear that it would be defeated.

Steinberg said a bond that is perceived as promoting the tunnels, a project that is a priority of the governor, is likely to be defeated by voters.

The new version put forth by Senate Democrats is slightly smaller at $10.5 billion. Supporters said it takes a neutral position on the tunnels, provides funding to improve the quality of drinking water supplies and maintains the $3 billion in the current bond to increase storage, primarily through building new dams or raising existing ones.

Maintaining money for dams was the top priority of Republican lawmakers, whose support is needed.

“If this is your signature priority, today is your chance,” Steinberg said.

Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said he believes voters will support the 2009 water bond that is currently on the ballot, given the water shortages facing many communities.

“I do believe that the voters of California, now having been confronted with this drought, will be sympathetic,” he said.

In the Assembly, several water bond overhauls are in the works, all of them less expensive than the Senate plan that came to a vote Monday. Any new version of the water bond will have to pass both houses of the Legislature on a supermajority vote and gain support from minority Republicans.

SB848 allocates $3 billion for safe drinking water projects, such as funding regional water management districts to remove sediment and make seismic retrofits at storage facilities. It would allocate $3.2 billion for wildlife and conservation projects as well as water recycling projects. Another $3 billion would be dedicated to dams and groundwater storage projects, while $1.3 billion would be used for cleaning up and preserving the delta.

Wolk’s bill would require any tunnel project to be approved by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy, which is part of the Delta Stewardship Council created by the Legislature in 2009 to manage the delta’s ecosystem and water supplies. Republicans worry the conservancy group could withhold money from projects they favor.

Lawmakers say California’s three-year drought makes it more pressing for them to reach agreement on a plan that will include money for more groundwater storage, dams, conservation and habitat restoration.

California is suffering through a string of several relatively dry winters, which have led to a reduced snowpack and groundwater reserves. Brown in January declared a drought emergency, and some communities are rationing water. Farmland is being left fallow, and court rulings have ordered that more water be released from reservoirs to sustain fish species in Northern California’s delta.

If SB838 were approved, taxpayers would make annual payments of $683 million for 30 years for a total of cost of $20.5 billion, according to legislative estimates.

Steinberg acknowledged that the revision would have been more likely if Democrats held on to a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate.

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By Judy Lin

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