A Bridge over Water: A Win-Win-Win for the 2014 Water Bond?

Thursday, August 14, 2014
Image credit: 
saiva, Shutterstock

At the last possible minute, the state legislature passed and Governor Brown signed into law a new water bond that will appear on the November ballot.  While the frantic maneuvers made by the legislature and Governor Brown could have been avoided, at the end of the day, it appears the new water bond is a win-win for legislative Democrats and Republicans, and Governor Brown.  The unanswered question is whether it is a win for California.

First some history:

November 2009: The state legislature, by over 70%, passes the Safe, Clean, and Reliable Water Supply Act of 2010 – an $11 billion water bond intended for the 2010 ballot.

August 2010: At the bequest of Governor Schwarzenegger, the legislature – again by over 70% in each chamber – vote to move the bond from the 2010 ballot to the 2012 ballot.  Schwarzenegger and the legislature were concerned the voters, weary about the economic recovery, would approve a massive bond.

July 2012:  Governor Brown, pushing ahead with a $6 billion-a-year tax increase on the ballot, asks the legislature to, again, postpone the water bond.  They concur, voting by over 90% in each chamber to push the bond to 2014.

Monday, August 11, 2014: Facing a midnight deadline to replace the $11 billion water bond (at which point the Secretary of State would start printing the ballot materials), the legislature, with Governor Brown’s approval, pass a bill to delay the deadline until midnight Thursday, August 14.

Evening on Wednesday, August 13, 2014: After a quick two-day negotiation dash, both chambers – by 77-2 in the Assembly and unanimously in the Senate – pass and Governor Brown signs a revised water bond.  The new reduced price tag is a little over $7 billion, with $2.7 billion for new water storage.

A win for Legislative Democrats

The $11 billion water bond was a monstrosity.  And knowing they could paint the Democrats into a corner, the Republicans smartly played their hand. The Democrats had a dilemma: do they give into Republican demands or do they allow the $11 billion version to remain and allow themselves to be cast as big spending, irresponsible politicians.

In an election year with their super-majority hanging by a thread, Democrats couldn’t let an $11 billion bond give Republicans fodder on the campaign trail with the state in the midst of a water crisis. The $7.5 billion price tag (of which just $7.1 billion will be on the ballot as new spending authorization) is much more manageable and closer to the Republican’s $8.7 billion suggested price tag, which gives Democrats not only a high-profile and common-sense victory at the negotiation table, but also political cover during the fall campaign season.

A win for Legislative Republicans

Republicans were shut out of the negotiation room; thus, all they could do was yell from outside that they’d accept nothing less than $3 billion in new water storage.  Knowing that some Republican votes were necessary (with 3 Democratic State Senators suspended for ethical issues, the Democrats don’t have the standing super-majority in that chamber necessary to pass the new bond on a straight-party vote), the Republicans aptly played their inferior hand.

By yelling loud enough that they would be okay with the $11 billion bond in lieu of another that had less than $3 billion for water storage, the Republicans put both the legislative Democrats and Governor Brown on notice.  And despite not having a seat at the table, the Republicans essentially got what they were demanding.  While $2.7 billion is $300 million off their target, it still represents 2/3rds of the water bond and is roughly 90% of the level earmarked for water storage in the $11 billion version.  And as plus, Republicans can go back to the campaign trail saying they compromised to ease the pain for the next drought and save taxpayers money.

A win for Governor Brown

While his actions don’t always match up, Governor Brown has successfully crafted a frugal persona; thus, having a pork-ridden bond on the same ballot as his re-election was something he didn’t want. The bond would force him to either support it (and shed his penny-pinching image), oppose it (and come across out-of-touch with a state reeling from the drought), or ignore it (and appear like a weak, uninterested leader).

And by staying on the sidelines until the absolute last minute – letting the legislature wallow in the wind – Brown became the knight in shining armor when he rode into the fray and led the final negotiations. Now he can go onto the campaign trail touting not only his leadership on the issue, but also the bond itself and look strong and interested at the same time.

But is it a win for California?

Judging from the legislators patting themselves on the back, it would be appear that they believe the new bond is a win for California. But it is entirely too soon to know. 

Is $2.7 billion enough for new water storage in a state that hasn’t, for the most part, built new water storage in as many as 2 or 3 decades? The local water districts seem to think so, but we’ll only know for sure once construction begins. 

Does the water bond do much to alleviate the current water crisis? Unlikely, but that may not necessarily be the point of the bond. 

Will it do enough to prevent another drought-caused water problem for the state? Possibly, but we’ll only know that for sure when the next drought comes along.

There’s no doubt about it. California’s water infrastructure is dated and inadequate. This bond will likely help to fix those problems, but California’s water problems go well beyond infrastructure, and while this is a victory, it’s a small one in a very big and complex issue.

Hoover Institution research fellow Carson Bruno studies California's political and policy landscape.  

 Follow him on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno