Call it a Christmas tree or a candy shop, Proposition 3 has a nice gift for almost everyone, especially eastern San Joaquin Valley farmers.
The Nov. 6 ballot initiative would authorize the largest water bond in California history, $8.9 billion. Add in $8.4 billion for interest payments and the total reaches $17.3 billion. That’s $430 million annually for 40 years.
Proposition 3 is the product of a classic pay-to-play operation. It’s probably not what Gov. Hiram Johnson envisioned when he and Progressive reformers created California’s direct democracy system more than a century ago.
Those reforms included the initiative, referendum and recall. The idea was to empower citizens to fight special interests — not to provide the interests with another tool to buy themselves public benefits.
Under pay to play, an initiative creator shops his draft proposal to interest groups, trolling for financial backing. Interests that donate to the cost of collecting voter signatures and the election campaign usually buy themselves a share of the initiative’s benefits. It’s a good investment. Roughly 80% of bond measures pass.
There’s also a version of pay to play in every legislative body in America. It’s old-fashioned pork barrel politics, a sort of “pay to vote” extortion. A legislator demands a special carve-out for his district in exchange for his vote.
In 2009, the California Legislature passed a water bond so bloated with pork that lawmakers were too embarrassed and fearful to even place it on the ballot. It totaled $11.1 billion and was saturated with such extraneous lard as bike trails, “watershed education centers” and money for a Lake Tahoe water taxi.
Finally in 2014, the Legislature — motivated by common sense and a devastating drought — passed a more modest, relatively pork-free $7.5-billion water bond that voters overwhelmingly approved.
Last year, the Legislature passed another water bond — held down to $4.1 billion by Gov. Jerry Brown — and voters approved it in June.
Neither the governor nor the Legislature thought a third water bond in four years was practical or prudent. But Jerry Meral, a veteran water expert, environmentalist and pay-to-play practitioner, thought otherwise and devised Proposition 3.
The campaign had raised $4.7 million as of Oct. 1. There has been no opposition money.
Agriculture has been a major bankroller — nut orchards, fruit trees, dairies, rice.
Also kicking in big have been bird hunters and watchers — Ducks Unlimited, the California Waterfowl Assn. — and the California Wildlife Foundation. Some wetlands would be restored under the proposal.
Environmentalists are split. The Nature Conservancy supports the measure. The Sierra Club is opposed.
“A lot of the money is going to a few big farming interests in the Central Valley,” asserts Kathryn Phillips, the Sierra Club director in California.
Opponents are especially bothered by a $750-million expenditure to repair the federally owned Friant-Kern and Madera canals between Fresno and Bakersfield.
Two problems, critics say:
First, the canals aren’t working right because they’ve sunk. And the land has sunk because farmers have over-pumped groundwater, causing major subsidence.
Growers caused their own problem. Now they want the whole state to pony up to solve it.
Historically, water projects are funded on the basis of beneficiary pay. Water users pay through their monthly bills. Proposition 3 would undo that policy for these two broken canals.
Second problem: The federal government owns the canals and should be responsible for fixing them — not the state.
“In the age of Trump, California taxpayers are going to fix a federal project? It’s just mind-boggling,” says Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), who wrote the cleaned-up $7.5-billion water bond in 2014 and strongly opposes Proposition 3.
Meral answers: “The federal government has been a little bit missing in action in California. It will be an unmitigated catastrophe if those canals aren’t fixed. We just can’t let them go. An agricultural water supply means we have a food supply.”
Not just “we” have the supply, however. California growers export much of their produce overseas. Maybe the whole world should kick in with repair dough if all Californians are expected to.
Actually, there are many good things on this loaded Christmas tree — money for purifying water for drinking, flood protection, dam repairs, recycling, desalination and habitat restoration.
An expenditure I especially like is $80 million to finally tear down Matilija Dam on the Ventura River near Ojai. It was built when I was a kid. My steelhead-fishing dad predicted it would silt up. Steelhead runs soon ceased because the oceangoing trout lost their spawning beds. And the reservoir sure enough filled up with silt and became utterly useless.
The question is whether all these projects are needed right now and are cost-effective. There seemed to be no prioritizing.
“It’s garbage — nothing but pet projects,” Rendon says. “It’s the old way of doing business. Cynical politics, what people don’t like.”
In the other legislative chamber, however, state Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) supports the measure. Her district makes out well under Proposition 3.
“It will increase reliable water supply in my district and across the state,” Atkins said in an email to me.
One crucial flaw in the initiative is that the Legislature would have no say over the bond program’s operation. No legislative oversight. The money would be spent unchecked by state agencies.