Virtually every newspaper in the state of California is marching in the Proposition 68 parade. The Parks, Environment and Water Bond promises to spend $4.1 billion on state parks, habitat conservation, ocean clean-up and many more water-related projects. Who doesn’t love parks? Who can’t see the need to conserve?
Yet, here we are on the curb, unable to get in step.
That’s because we’re still puzzled about the last big bond measure that promised to do so much good for our state’s water resources. In 2014, we fully embraced Proposition 1, which designated $7.5 billion to recycle water, cleanse our rivers and provide flood protection. The biggest slice of that enormous pie was for new storage, $2.7 billion. Four years later, we’re still waiting.
California Water Commission staff spent three years evaluating a dozen projects. In their initial findings, released in February, not a single one qualified under the “public benefit ratio.” After a round of revisions, staff endorsed several – including Sites Reservoir northwest of Sacramento.
Foremost among the also-rans was Temperance Flat, a dam that south San Joaquin Valley farmers were counting on to augment water supplies and to hold cold water for migrating salmon. Rejection left many south Valley folks angry and perplexed.
Oddly, the Pacheco Reservoir expansion, which also initially scored a zero, got nearly all the money it requested – $485 million. That was after the sponsoring Santa Clara Valley Water District’s board decided to spend $650 million to help build Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels.
What’s that got to do with parks, conservation, safe drinking water and improved habitat? Nothing. But it has everything to do with our loss of faith in the state’s bond allocation process. Turning over $4.1 billion to a highly suggestible bureaucracy no longer seems like a good idea.
Without doubt we need money to clean Valley groundwater contaminated by oil drilling, brine injection and fertilizer infiltration. We desperately need money to shore up levees that protect cities like Sacramento, Ripon and Manteca from flooding. And we’d all love nice, new parks.
Yet, we can’t stop thinking about who gets to choose. Who determines what’s worthy and what isn’t? We worry about language in the proposition that gives preference to cities of 300,000 and counties of 3 million. Why is special consideration baked in for projects in San Bernardino County, the San Fernando Valley, the Santa Monica mountains, the Salton Sea and the lower Los Angeles River? We wonder why the San Diego River Conservancy gets $12 million and the San Joaquin River Conservancy gets $6 million.
The parade of those endorsing Proposition 68 is lengthy and impressive – virtually every land-use group in the state, 24 cities, the California Chamber of Commerce, the Sierra Club, 25 state senators (including Cathleen Galgiani), 53 Assembly members (including Heath Flora and Adam Gray) and even the American Heart Association among dozens more.
In deference, we won’t recommend a “no” vote on Proposition 68. But we will recommend that voters consider what they’re getting if they vote yes. And they should remember what they didn’t get with Proposition 1.
The other propositions are more cut-and-dried.
Proposition 69: Yes. The 12-cent gas tax increase passed last year was the first in 23 years and is essential for fixing our state’s deteriorating roads. Our region’s self-help counties will benefit with road repairs and better rail service both to Sacramento and the Bay Area. Prop 69 ensures that $5 billion in new gas-tax revenue must be spent on transportation projects. Most transportation money is already constitutionally earmarked, but some of the new funding falls outside those protections – this fixes that.
The only opposition is from those who want to repeal the gas tax altogether. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. The 12-cent per gallon gas tax is a bargain, costing most of us little more than the price of latte each month. This makes sure it goes where it’s needed.
Proposition 70: No. If this passes, our state’s cap-and-trade allocations will be subject to a two-thirds vote of Legislature starting in 2024. That gives the minority party veto power over the majority – which is always a bad idea.
Proposition 71: Yes. Of all the initiatives, this is the most obvious to pass. The state constitution requires that propositions approved by voters on “election night” automatically become law the next day. That was fine 100 years ago, but today’s elections aren’t certified for a month. What happens if a law is implemented, but must be rolled back after a recount? It almost happened in 2016. This delays implementation until five days after the election is certified.
Proposition 72: Yes. Installing systems to capture rainwater for lawn irrigation is a good thing. But today homeowners can be dinged on their property taxes for adding this improvement. This gives rainwater-capture systems the same tax exemptions as solar panels, fire sprinklers, disabled access, etc. Because it removes a tax penalty, it requires voter approval. It should be automatic.