Water bond delay: When a loss is still a victory

By Elanor Starmer, Food & Water Watch Western Region Director

On Monday night, the California legislature voted on a proposal to postpone Proposition 18, the $11 billion water bond, to the 2012 ballot. For bond opponents, there were moments of celebration, as when Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-Santa Rosa), a bond supporter last year, spoke in favor of pulling the bond from the ballot indefinitely. There were also moments of frustration, as when bond opponent Sandre Swanson (D- Alameda/Oakland) flipped his vote last minute and opted to keep the bond afloat for another two years.

In the end, the push to postpone the bond to 2012 passed by the smallest of margins. It’s not what bond opponents wanted. Ideally, the legislature would have seen the light and scrapped it altogether, or let the voters pull the plug this November so we could get to work on better approaches.

But despite the passage of a bill that keeps the bond alive for another two years, bond opponents should claim victory.

The pro-bond lobby, which includes deep-pocketed construction, developer and agribusiness interests, wanted to see the bond passed this year. Passing it was a priority for the Schwarzenegger administration; the governor’s PAC, Schwarzenegger’s California Dream Team, funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pro-bond campaign. Our recent study found hundreds of thousands of additional dollars flowing to the campaign from the agribusiness industry and construction associations.

But faced by strong opposition from a voting public increasingly fed up with Sacramento’s misguided priorities, bond supporters started backpedaling last month. Schwarzenegger called for the bond to be postponed to 2012, when he hoped it would have a better chance of passing. He and other supporters were quoted in the press as saying that the bond was untenable this year given the state’s poor economic condition.

In effect, they admitted that we can’t afford the bond — now or ever. Because as much as we can all hope for a miraculous economic turnaround in the next two years, a $22 billion hit to the General Fund is still $22 billion less the state will have available to fund education, healthcare, public safety and other essential services, regardless of when the blow falls.

And why should we endure such a hit even in the best of economic times? Historically, major water infrastructure projects in California have been governed by a “beneficiary pays” principle — the interests that will benefit from the investment should foot the bill. The passage of this bond would change that. Our study showed that the bond would shift the burden of paying for new dams, desalination plants, and other projects — some of which can be owned and operated by private companies — squarely to ordinary Californians, even though they are not the projects’ main beneficiaries.

And given the growing trend of profit-loaded water sales from wealthy landowners to urban water users, consumers would risk paying again in the form of higher water rates if we passed a bond that funneled yet more water to the same powerful interests.

There were many factors behind the decision of the pro-bond lobby to push for postponement, including other ballot measures that were drawing resources away from their campaign. But many media sources also noted “organized opposition to the bond” as one rationale behind the Governor’s decision to ask for postponement. For that reason, Prop 18 opponents have cause to celebrate.

The bond is still in play. Pro-bond interests have retreated to the huddle, dreaming up new ways to convince voters to hand over control over their water. They may come back to the fight with more money and political bravado, but Californians are smart and don’t like being double-crossed. We’re prepared for the long fight.