PolitiCal News and analysis on California politics

Ballot measure is new obstacle to diverting water to Southern California

Californians will act on a ballot measure next year that would require voter approval for many large public-works projects, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to dig giant tunnels to divert water from Northern California to the south.

The measure, initiated by a Stockton-area farmer who opposes the tunnel project, has qualified for the November 2016 ballot, according to the secretary of state.

Under the initiative, the state would have to seek voters' permission before funding projects that cost more than $2 billion with revenue bonds — borrowing that is repaid with receipts from the projects they pay for, rather than with general taxpayer funds.

Brown is proposing such bonds for the $15-billion plan to tunnel under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. They would be repaid by water users.

The tunnel plan, which is going through an administrative approval process, has strong opposition from Delta-area landowners who resent the diversion of water to thirsty cities to the south, including Los Angeles.

Brown is opposed to the ballot measure, according to spokesman Gareth Lacy.

“This is a really bad idea that would cause costly delays in repairing our roads, colleges and water systems and make it harder to respond to natural disasters,” Lacy said. “The governor is strongly opposed to this initiative.”

In a statement last week, Brown called the tunnel plan essential for California.

“The Delta pipeline is essential to completing the California Water Project and protecting fish and water quality,” Brown said. “Without this fix, San Joaquin farms, Silicon Valley and other vital centers of the California economy will suffer devastating losses in their water supply.”

Claims to the contrary, Brown said, are “false, shameful and do a profound disservice to California’s future.”

Dean Cortopassi —the wealthy farmer and food processor who, with his wife, spent $4 million on a petition drive to place the initiative on the ballot — is focused on the state's overall debt rather than any specific project, said a spokesman.

“He started looking at the state debt issues and how do we control the state debt,” said spokesman Tom Ross, a political consultant for Cortopassi. “If Californians are expected to pay for projects of $2 billion or more, they ought to have a say on them. This gives Californians an opportunity to vote.”

The ballot measure, if approved, would also affect the state's high-speed rail project, Ross said.

In the past, Cortopassi has been a leader of and fundraiser for Restore the Delta, the group leading the opposition to the tunnels project. The group has not taken a position on the ballot measure.

A coalition of business and labor groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the State Building and Construction Trades Council, has begun a campaign against the initiative.

“This ballot measure is both deceptive and dangerous,” said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce. “Since neither the general fund nor state taxpayers are on the hook for repayment, it’s misleading and unnecessary to call for a statewide vote.”

Zaremberg said the measure “would stall or stop vitally needed infrastructure projects all over the state,” including those for water delivery, road and bridge repairs and university buildings.

Building trades council President Robbie Hunter, co-chairman of the opponents' campaign committee, issued a statement saying there would be an aggressive effort to defeat the measure.

He said it would allow voters statewide to reject a project that one city or area of the state needs.

“Our state is suffering from a massive backlog of essential needs across the state including outdated water systems that are vulnerable to earthquakes, crumbling roads and bridges and overcrowded hospitals and universities,” Hunter said. “This measure worsens an already grave situation and threatens our economy and job creation.”

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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