Gov. Jerry Brown is picking a fight over a two-decade-old law that can make it difficult to increase water rates, raising the possibility of a new battle over the issue at the ballot box next year.
He's turning his attention to the issue as he seeks more flexibility to fund infrastructure improvements and use financial incentives to spur conservation, tactics for steering California through the fourth year of a damaging drought.
"Too many Californians still lack affordable, safe drinking water," Brown said in a statement Friday. "Proposition 218 serves as the biggest impediment to public water systems being able to establish low-income rate assistance programs."
Proposition 218, passed in 1996, requires that many local taxes and fees be approved by voters. It also prevents government agencies from charging more for a service than it costs to provide the service.
Brown called the law "an obstacle to thoughtful, sustainable water conservation pricing and necessary flood and stormwater system improvements."
Brown announced his effort to change things when he signed AB 401, a measure by Assemblyman Bill Dodd (D-Napa) intended to help low-income Californians pay their water bills.
The governor's plan for tiered water pricing -- consumers paying increasing amounts for water as they use more -- ran into legal trouble when a state appeals court said it violated Proposition 218.
Brown complained that the court's ruling was a "straightjacket."
It's unclear what kind of changes Brown will try to make. He said he plans to work with lawmakers and others to address the issue "while maintaining rate payer protections."
Brown could find important support from water agencies in his effort.
"He's pretty much got it right," said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies. "There's a problem to be solved here."
Although Proposition 218 has improved accountability, Quinn said, there needs to be more flexibility to make investments.
"You've got a very difficult road getting financing for your infrastructure," he said.
Quinn said his organization has been in touch with the Brown administration as it develops proposals. Because Proposition 218 is a constitutional amendment approved by voters, the governor's effort would be likely to require a new ballot measure.
He would certainly face resistance from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which wrote Proposition 218.
"We would obviously oppose" the governor's efforts, said Jon Coupal, the group's president. "The voters would ultimately decide."
Follow @chrismegerian for more updates from Sacramento.