Dan Walters

August 3, 2014

Water bond leads agenda as California lawmakers return for final month

Legislators return from summer recess today to a mountain of unfinished business. They have until the end of the month to decide whether to pass bills and send them to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Looking ahead to the crush of down-to-the-wire bills that will consume their August, California lawmakers have a unified message:

It’s all about the water bond.

Legislators return from summer recess today to a mountain of unfinished business. They have until the end of the month to decide whether to pass bills and send them to Gov. Jerry Brown.

But to a person, every California lawmaker asked about the frenzied final stretch pointed to the agenda-crowning need to place a new water bond before voters this year. A widely reviled $11.1 billion measure passed in 2009 has been forsaken by most Democrats. With a vicious drought still withering the state, members of both parties feel the pressure to find a viable alternative.

“Right away, and as soon as we get back, the first week, we have to figure out how we’re going to proceed with the water bond,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

So far, disagreements about the overall size of the bond, the amount of money for surface storage projects, like dams, and the disputed role of the Sacramento Delta have upended attempts at compromise. Since a bond requires a two-thirds vote, some Republicans will need to be on board. That support has not materialized.

“The (already qualified) 2009 water bond is the product of a bipartisan agreement and is much better than the other alternatives that have been presented by majority-party Democrats,” Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said in an emailed statement. “The situation is simple; California is trying to provide water to a population that’s at least doubled in numbers since our 60-year-old system was built.”

The more the Legislature delays, the more complex and costly things become for state and county election officials responsible for displaying and disseminating voter guides and ballots.

“Every day elections officials are forced to delay this important work increases the risk of error and the likelihood voters don’t receive the information they need to make decisions,” said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office. “It’s very risky the further out we go here.”

Just as the looming election lends urgency to the water bond debate, it also hovers over the votes legislators will cast before voters head to the polls in November. Legislators are returning from a month spent largely back in their home districts, among constituents. The question for many, said emeritus San Jose State politics professor Larry Gerston, is: “Does the elected official feel heat?”

“When there are issues that could complicate the re-election effort or threaten the re-election effort, then that elected official is faced with a decision: ‘Do I vote my conscience or vote for what the party wants, or do I in the name of survival give in on this issue so I can be around to do other things?’ ” Gerston said. “So that becomes a district-by-district matter.”

As lawmakers debate bills, torrents of money will be flowing into their campaign accounts. A list of fundraisers obtained by The Bee records 59 events planned for incumbent legislators in August. Consistent with a Senate resolution blocking end-of-session fundraisers this year, no senators appear on the list.

One issue that could gain traction for threatened lawmakers is the prospect of higher gas prices. California’s landmark cap-and-trade law will soon require producers of transportation fuels, such as gasoline, to purchase permits for carbon emissions.

An expected spike in prices at the pump has led moderate Democrats to request a delay, attracting the ire of environmentalists and stay-the-course vows from leadership. Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, has authored a bill to hold off on bringing fuels under the program. He cites the fragile economic situation in much of the Central Valley.

“We want to be a leader in climate change,” Perea said, “but the question becomes, how do we do it and who pays and how much do they pay? When you look at the current system, disproportionately lower-income communities like the neighborhoods I represent are going to get hit harder.”

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, cast doubt on the measure’s prospects in an interview with The Bee’s editorial board, lauding the cap-and-trade law and saying that “if we’re going to meet our appropriate and aggressive climate change goals, we have to include fuels.”

“I think there’s a great danger of short-term politics and a lot of fear overriding what is a good, solid policy,” Steinberg said. “We are either serious about incentivizing the replacement of fossil fuels or we are not, and if we are, let’s step up and do it.”

Even if the Perea bill is unlikely to succeed, it could spark debate. Two letters – one seeking a delay, one rejecting such a change – acquired the signatures of 48 Democratic legislators.

“I think there will be quite a bit of discussion about that in the last month of session,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles.

Other bills with sweeping implications await key votes. Two float ideas that have repeatedly surfaced in Sacramento, setting Democratic priorities against business opposition: Assembly Bill 1522 would require employers to give their workers paid sick leave, and Senate Bill 270 would ban single-use plastic bags.

Plastic bag industry groups have already assailed the bag ban in advertisements, and a fresh salvo is coming this week. The paid sick leave bill, attempted multiple times in recent years, claims a place on the California Chamber of Commerce’s “job-killers” list.

And the water bond is not the only bond measure that could go before voters. A bill for school construction bonds has quietly been sailing through the Legislature, avoiding a single dissenting vote. The paramount issue, said Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, is winning over the fiscally cautious Brown.

“We have very broad support,” Buchanan said. “We still have yet to convince the governor that a school bond is needed.”

Then there are the inevitable late-blooming bills, so-called “gut and amends” that allow lawmakers to circumvent the plodding committee process by putting new language in a bill that’s already far along. Last year, bills surfaced in the final month dealing with such contentious issues as medical marijuana, condoms in pornography and a new Sacramento Kings arena.

So more momentous bills could emerge this month. Regardless, lawmakers will also be mulling hundreds of measures, big and small, whose fate will be determined before the calendar flips.

“I have a feeling,” Atkins said, “we’re going to be up to our eyeballs.”

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