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Sinking the water bond

And then there were nine. The water bond known as Proposition 18, which was to be the first of 10 measures on the Nov. 2 ballot, has been put off for two years, leaving voters with slightly less campaign material crowding their mailboxes, fewer words in the ballot pamphlet to read and understand, and one less decision to make. That sounds like a good thing. But it’s a telling example of the state’s political stalemate.

The $11-billion bond measure would have presented the state with an enormous new debt and new annual service payments — at a time when Californians are grappling with the consequences of past spending decisions. Bonds and pension commitments lock the state into preprogrammed spending for decades to come.

Yet California is in dire need of a plan to break a 40-year-old deadlock on water planning and policy. Factions in the water fight — environmentalists and farmers, the Bay Area and Los Angeles, agribusiness and fishing, Democrats and Republicans — have argued themselves into stasis. Better to let California dry up and blow away, each group often seemed to be saying, than to accept an opponent’s plan or to give up anything on its own wish list.

That’s what made last year’s water agreement so rare. After decades of saying “all or nothing,” many (but not all) factions in the water wars responded to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s call to cobble together a package that finally moved the state forward. There was plenty not to like; the whole point of a compromise is that everyone doesn’t get everything they want. This page offered the Legislature grudging praise for getting the job done — grudging because the bond was bigger than it needed to be and larded with special favors, but praise nonetheless, because lawmakers were doing something that long seemed possible: getting the state out of its perpetual “pause” mode.

Until they reached the water deal, California lawmakers appeared utterly unable to achieve a workable compromise for the common good. Exhibit A is the annual failure to adopt a timely and balanced state budget. Several years ago, Democrats blew a chance to reform term limits, and Republicans missed an opportunity to change the way district lines are drawn, because each side insisted on winning without trading away anything in return. Instead, the state got redistricting reform at the ballot box — and opponents are returning to the ballot this year with a measure to repeal it. Meanwhile, Democrats — who lost term limit reform several years ago — are trying it again on the 2012 ballot. The attitude seems to be that it’s better to try, lose and try again than to compromise and get something done.

Schwarzenegger didn’t think the water bond could pass this year, especially if he had to spend so much of his campaign and fundraising resources fighting off Proposition 23, which would suspend the landmark climate change bill he signed in 2006. It’s hard to argue with his logic.

But it’s also hard to miss the central point of California’s dysfunction. We just can’t seem to move, because we are incapable of compromise.


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