Concerned about voter angst over California's finances, lawmakers say they may need to overhaul a ballot measure that would provide $11.1 billion for a slew of long-awaited water projects.
Lawmakers from both parties say the water projects are urgently needed, but the proposed bond measure's price tag may make it a non-starter with voters at a time when the state is facing ongoing budget woes.
California is prone to drought, and the state's aging system of reservoirs and aqueducts that distributes water to both urban and agricultural users needs a number of upgrades.
But voters outside of the state's agricultural centers are not particularly concerned about water, and lawmakers sense they may reject a massive bond that would add to the state's debt burden.
California already devotes 7.8 percent of its general fund to debt service, according to the state treasurer's office. Any further increase in the debt burden would put added pressure on schools, universities and other public services that have already seen their budgets slashed dramatically.
There's a growing concern that a water bond of this size is a very tough sell, said Joe Simitian, a Democratic state Senator.
Republican Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries agrees: Now we have a water bond that is so large that I think it's going to be very difficult for the public to support it.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY
That the measure, which Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has also indicated is too pricey, is being put to voters is a political miracle by California standards.
It came together in 2009 under former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and combines priorities of water policy warriors at environmental groups, farm groups and water districts that typically fight each other through allies in the state's notoriously fractious legislature.
The measure, which required a two-thirds vote of the Democrat-led legislature, would authorize the sale of general obligation bonds to raise proceeds for a variety of projects.
They include conservation and recycling projects and work in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which stores much of California's fresh water. Diversion of water from the Delta has been a hotly contested issue for years, due in part to damage it does to salmon and other fish.
The measure would also provide for groundwater, watershed, drought relief and drinking water projects along with surface storage projects -- the last a code name for dams that are fiercely opposed by environmentalists.
Major changes to the measure, which was dropped from last November's ballot in favor of next year's general election ballot, would be tricky given its delicate balance of interests.
It would be a real challenge to achieve consensus, said Jeffries, a former board member at two water districts in Southern California. It would just turn it into an incredibly heavy lift.
RAIN BRINGS POLITICAL RISK
Jeffries instead proposes lawmakers cut allocations to each of the measure's projects by 25 percent to reduce its size.
Some lawmakers may, however, look for a broader rewrite of the measure.
I understand the appeal simplicity has but that would suggest that everything in the bond is of equal importance, and that's just not the case, Simitian said.
Simitian proposes reducing the measure's size and crafting separate legislation providing for revenue bonds for projects that are not central to statewide water needs.
Another option is to push the measure to the 2014 ballot. But that carries a financial risk if interest rates rise.
Borrowing rates are at historic lows. Waiting could cost the state a lot more, said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat.
Waiting may also increase political risk for the measure, which was crafted during a drought. Wet winter weather has returned in force to California and if it persists voters may simply tune out appeals for long-term water projects.
Water infrastructure isn't something that they think about day to day, said Charley Wilson, chairman of the Southern California Water Committee, an advocacy group for increased investment in water projects. People do perhaps take it for granted.