In a stunning development Tuesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he would try to pull an $11.1 billion water bond off the November ballot and instead ask voters to approve it two years from now.
The governor said the delay was needed to focus on the overdue state budget, but the economic climate and persistent criticism of the bond"s cost also were making the measure a tough sell.
"After reviewing the agenda for this year, I believe our focus should be on the budget "” solving the deficit, reforming out of control pension costs and fixing our broken budget system," Schwarzenegger said.
By far the largest water bond in state history, the Legislature put the measure on the ballot last fall after months of debate. It includes billions in funding for new dams and water projects the governor promoted as an important part of his legacy.
"It is a bitter pill," said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies and a leading supporter of the measure.
"The poll numbers were discouraging and the budget cycle promised to be drawn out and ugly," Quinn said. "We have to live with it."
To remove the bond from the ballot requires approval of two-thirds of the Legislature. It is unclear whether the votes are there, but failing to take it off the ballot now would likely create more problems for the bond because Tuesday"s announcement is an admission that it is unlikely to pass.
Lawmakers busy with the budget will not have a lot of time to respond.
July 20 would be one critical point for lawmakers, said a spokeswoman for the secretary of state"s office. That"s the date when the state reveals its voters" guide, and it would take a court order to change it after that, said spokeswoman Shannan Velayas.
Supporters characterized the bond as a long-overdue measure to fund new reservoirs, water conservation projects and studies to re-engineer California"s primary water source, the Delta. They cited the Delta pumping restrictions over the past three years that have hit some San Joaquin Valley farmers hard "” restrictions resulting from a drought but also from court rulings to protect endangered salmon and smelt.
Nearly every major water district in the state endorsed the Prop. 18, including the Contra Costa Water District, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Westlands Water District.
It also had the support of the California Chamber of Commerce, California Farm Bureau Federation, the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.
But some environmentalists complained that the measure"s $3 billion for new dams was ten times as much as allocated for water conservation projects. They also said the bond money could be use to plan for a canal to divert water around the Delta for shipment to Southern California. Other critics said it was simply too expensive.
"This is a bad measure that won"t get any better with time. It"s not fine wine. It"s just pork," said joint statement issued by state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis and Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres. "We should start over next year with a new Legislature and governor with an open and transparent public process."
Meanwhile, organized opposition was mounting. Apart from the Sierra Club and League of Women Voters, the powerful California Teacher"s Association on Tuesday came out against the bond, saying that its $800 million a year in debt payments would take money that could be used for schools.
"The water bond was going to be caught up in the budget negotiations this summer," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear. "The key thing is to protect the water bond."
The co-chairman of the coalition supporting the bond supported the delay.
"We"re confident that when presented to voters, they will approve the measure," said Jim Earp, executive director of California Alliance for Jobs. "However, in light of the economic situation, we agree with the Governor and legislative leaders that the best timing for the water bond is in 2012."
Though the Legislature approved the bond at the same time as a comprehensive set of water policy reforms, they do not depend on the bond passing.
"It"s a smart move. The better part of valor when you are going to lose is to live to fight another day," said Barbara O"Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State.