California water bond signals historic compromise

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The $7.5 billion water package brokered by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders signals a rare bipartisan agreement on a thorny, politically divisive issue that has bedeviled California governors and lawmakers for decades.

To get sign-off from the dizzying array of interests, Brown hunkered down with lawmakers from both parties behind closed doors for the past few weeks, eventually giving Republicans more of the funding for reservoirs and water storage they have long sought.

The state's crippling drought provided the impetus to overcome longstanding divisions and put a proposal before voters in November that balances regional politics with the state's overall water needs. It is also a big win for Brown as he campaigns for re-election.

The drought "hits home in literally almost every district in California," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, creating urgency for a deal this year.

It also gives all parties a win to take home as they campaign for office this November.

"Imagine your lawmaker coming home from Sacramento," he said. "Your voters know that there's a drought, and they ask, `What are you doing about it in Sacramento?' And you just shrug your shoulders. How inept would you look?"

Brown has repeatedly bragged this year that unlike politically gridlocked Washington, D.C., California politicians are tackling serious problems and forging compromises. Wednesday's nearly unanimous vote gave him the proof.

With Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature, political compromise with Republicans is rarely required. Wednesday's vote gave the minority party a rare shot at relevance, but Brown said he wanted their support anyway, to help sell the plan to voters.

"The pitch now is you've got a unified front," said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. "You got Northern, Central, South. You got Republicans. You got Democrats. You've got the Senate leadership, the Assembly leadership -- both, you know, Republican and Democrat -- and you got the governor."

The water plan satisfied Republicans and farmers by providing $2.7 billion to build two new reservoirs and placates environmentalists by providing billions more for water conservation, recycling and cleanup efforts. The bond also includes money for watershed improvements and flood management.

Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, called the package "a historic change" away from decades of water policy that centered around the imperiled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region.

It replaces an $11.1 billion water deal reached between lawmakers and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, which was set to appear on the November ballot but will now be swapped out. That deal squeaked through the Legislature only after political giveaways that bloated the cost with unrelated pork, forcing lawmakers to twice postpone taking it to voters in the wake of the recession.

The historic drought that has walloped the state offers voters a daily reminder of the crisis that supporters hope will propel it to a win. The drought has forced farmers to fallow fields, caused double-digit unemployment in some areas and prompted state officials to approve fines for overusing water.

The $7.5 billion price tag may give voters pause, but it is unlikely to face serious opposition and will likely pass if Brown campaigns for it as he did with his 2012 tax increases, Whalen said.

The deal includes sweeteners for lawmakers to tout back home. Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said it provides "more than $100 million to the Sacramento region for flood control management and drought relief." Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina, promoted its "$30 million allocated to the San Gabriel & Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy."

Brown came to negotiations late, months after lawmakers debated a host of their own proposals, amid his own worries that having multibillion-dollar package on the ballot alongside his name could undermine his reputation for fiscal restraint. The deal approved Wednesday could cost the state $14.7 billion over 30 years.

The Democratic governor is expected to easily win re-election regardless.

If voters approve it, the deal also ensures the Brown name becomes synonymous with California water. His father, then-Gov. Pat Brown, brokered the state's last major water deal in 1959, persuading lawmakers and voters to back the State Water Project, an extensive system of reservoirs and canals that was considered an engineering marvel in its day and still is the backbone of California's water delivery system.

The latest deal also required compromise with Democrats and environmentalists who oppose Brown's other massive water plan, a $25 billion proposal to drill two 35-mile-long, freeway-sized water tunnels beneath the Northern California delta. Opponents wanted assurances that nothing in the bond package would go to pay for the tunnels.

The ballot measure sailed through both houses of the Legislature: 77-2 in the Assembly

and 37-0 in the Senate. Republican Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks and Democrat Wesley Chesbro of Arcata cast the dissenting votes in the Assembly.

As he signed the legislation Wednesday night, Brown said he couldn't remember seeing Democrats and Republicans so united. A GOP lawmaker later tweeted a photo of lawmakers celebrating with the governor.

Still, the bond provides no immediate relief for the state's water woes. "It's going to be 10 years probably before we get any storage out of this," conceded Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.

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Associated Press writers Fenit Nirappil and Tom Verdin contributed to this report.

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