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Trim the pork from water bond

Capitol Journal

The governor and the Legislature did the smart thing politically by removing their pork-stuffed water bond proposal from the voters’ grasp in November.

Next, they should do the prudent thing, both politically and fiscally, by tossing out the pork. That would make the bond much more digestible to voters if, indeed, it does wind up on the 2012 ballot as now scheduled.

If not, the voters — the taxpayers — are very likely to do the right thing for themselves and bury the bloated $11.1-billion bond.

It was fascinating to watch the debates in the Senate and Assembly late Monday as the Legislature voted to remove the bond — Proposition18 — from the November ballot and shelve it for two years.

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One healthy thing about the exercise was that the debate was virtually devoid of party partisanship, which is almost unheard of on controversial issues in the Capitol.

The two sides, as they nearly always do on water, divided geographically — basically north and south. But they also fractured regionally: farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta against growers in the San Joaquin Valley, for example. Liberals and conservatives lined up together on each side.

More amazing — even amusing in a sick way — was watching the hypocrisy of so-called fiscal conservatives arguing to preserve a bond laden with such superfluous spending. They were pleading for the taxpayers’ purchase of nonessential toys as well as necessary tools.

These are Republicans willing to join Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in killing California’s main welfare program and shuttering classrooms, while borrowing to build bike trails and “watershed education centers.”

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Not all fiscal conservatives are buying the bond.

Referring to the $19-billion budget deficit, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine), told colleagues: “I don’t believe we could have afforded the bond when we passed it a few months ago, and I certainly don’t believe we can afford it now.”

Last November, after one of those torturous all-night sessions in the Assembly, the Legislature passed the larded-up bond. Already bloated by the time it passed the Senate, the measure was fattened by an additional $1.15 billion overnight in the Assembly.

Assembly leaders “added about $100 million an hour as we played, ‘Let’s make a deal,’” DeVore recalled in Monday’s debate.

Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), who represents part of the Delta, recalled sitting at her Assembly desk that night and being asked by bond backers: “How much do you need” in pork? She didn’t bite.

But many did, acquiring for their districts nature trails, open space, visitor centers, museums, tree planting — barrels of pork that have little if anything to do with water.

It’s what often happens when a two-thirds vote is needed to pass legislation. When votes become scarce, it’s a seller’s market.

Fortunately for California, only a majority vote was required when Gov. Pat Brown’s legacy-building water bond passed the Legislature in 1959. It couldn’t have garnered a two-thirds vote. And without that bond, it’s questionable whether there ever would have been a California Water Project.

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During Monday’s Senate debate, Democrat Lois Wolk of Davis — a Delta lawmaker who strongly opposes the current bond — brought to light a previously unnoticed piece of pork: “A Tahoe water taxi.”

“Why have water taxis when we can’t even fund municipal transit?” she later said to me.

You won’t find any specific mention in the bond proposal about a Tahoe water taxi or many of the other pork payoffs. But here’s what it does say: $100 million is earmarked for “The Lake Tahoe Basin watershed” for “projects consistent with the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program.” Look up that program and you’ll find that one of its “exciting priorities for the future” is a “waterborne transit system.”

Actually, the Lake Tahoe watershed doesn’t even feed the California Delta. Tahoe water flows into Nevada and takes care of Reno.

The Tahoe pork was inserted at the request of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who worked with Schwarzenegger in crafting last year’s water package.

The package contains a lot more than the bond, including a streamlined governing structure for the Delta, a pathway to possible construction of a canal carrying Sacramento River water around the brackish Delta, the potential of a dam or two, ecological restoration of the Delta, mandatory statewide water conservation and groundwater monitoring.

But most of this will require a bond issue for financing.

And it’s vital because the crumbling Delta — increasingly unreliable for San Joaquin farmers and a deathtrap for migrating salmon — is California’s main water hub, the source of drinking water for 24 million people and irrigation for 3 million acres.

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But with the economy still sputtering, unemployment hanging above 12% and state services being severed, bond backers decided not to test the voters’ grumpy mood.

Anyway, the timing wasn’t right for business interests to raise the necessary $20 million to promote the bond. They’ve got other fish to fry on the November ballot.

“We probably would not be very successful,” conceded Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), author of the bill to delay the measure. “Let’s push this back and fight another day.”

She and other bond supporters said the public still needs to be “educated” about the bond’s importance.

But opponents also will be educating the voters about the red-flagged, rancid pork.

“There’s no reason to think it will pass in 2012,” says Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who once supported the bond but now opposes it. “It’s a wounded measure.”

The next governor and Legislature should strip away the lard — maybe $3 billion worth — and offer voters a clean, lean proposal.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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