California Water: A Taste of Pork

Tomorrow, our Action Governor is going to star at a media event at Friant Dam, near Fresno. He’s using the dam, which impounds the San Joaquin River, as a prop for a ceremony at which he’ll sign an $11.1 billion bond measure that will go onto next November’s ballot. The money’s supposed to go for building new dams and reservoirs and for environmental restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which has been laid waste by earlier generations’ water schemes.

It’s a big bond. In ordinary times it might be a tough sell. But these are lean, lean times for the state, which is suffering through a staggering series of budget deficits and will have to pay interest of $700 million or $800 million out of its general fund every year once all the water bonds are sold. Schwarzenegger said last week he thinks voters will go for the measure because they’ve recently passed other big infrastructure bonds, such as last year’s $10 billion initiative to finance a California high-speed rail system.

Maybe so. But enter the Associated Press. One of its Sacramento reporters has been leafing through the bond bill. Here’s what she found:

“… Dozens of projects … were injected into the bond bill to secure enough votes to get it passed. The projects will add tens of millions of dollars to the interest taxpayers will have to pay on the bond if voters approve it next year.

“Many of the projects are only peripherally related to the purpose of the legislative package, which is intended to increase California’s water supply and restore the ecologically fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“For example, $30 million was earmarked to the state Department of Parks and Recreation for grants for watershed education facilities. Another $20 million is set aside for the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, which manages land for recreation and wildlife and is the Los Angeles district represented by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.

“In the final days of negotiations, lawmakers in both chambers padded the bond bill with an additional $1.7 billion, despite previous statements by legislative leaders that the state could not afford such a large bond.”

The AP is following up here on what was widely rumored around the state Capitol when the bond was passed In fact, a reporter asked Schwarzenegger about the add-ins during his a self-congratulatory press conference the governor held after the Legislature acted. Here’s what the governor had to say last week to the suggestion that some of the projects in the bond measure might be “pork”:

QUESTION: Governor, how can voters support this package when you passed it in the middle of the night and the — so the pork, so-called pork, inserted in there including (Inaudible) pulled out?

GOVERNOR: Are you talking about — I don’t know what you’re talking about, because the end package does not have any pork whatsoever, so I don’t know what you’re talking about.

QUESTION: Late in the evening the bill, as it was being drafted, contained — was amended and contained — and these projects were added for various counties and for various projects. So the tab grew from 9 billion to 11 billion. So how can the voters take on something like this at a time when they’re still feeling the pinch and how can they be sure that all the money will be spent well?

GOVERNOR: Well, first of all, as you know, I’m not as interested in the process as in the end result. So throughout the process we went from 8 billion to 12 billion, to 9 billion, to 11 billion, back to 9 billion and back up to 11 billion. So I think this is maybe something interesting for the journalists but it definitely is not as interesting to me. To me always what’s interesting is the result and the result was a great, great package of approximately $11 billion.

One of the things you have to love here is the way Schwarzenegger, reputed to be a hard-headed businessman, so breezily dismisses the appearance of billions of dollars of extra stuff. That’s something that’s only interesting to journalists, he says. And, he may find out very soon, to the people who will have to pay the tab.

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