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Water bond measure loaded with 'pork'?

November 9, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
An $11-billion water bond measure heads for the ballot box as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs the bill into law. But critics say it's "watered down" with too much pork. The voters will have to decide: do they want to spend $11 billion to improve the water supply, at the same time adding to the state's debt? The measure is already generating controversy.Governor Schwarzenegger's signature on the $11-billion bond bill pays for badly needed repairs to the outdated delta system and ensures a reliable water supply for statewide use.

"Let me just say, there's not one single dollar that is not going to be spent wisely," said Schwarzenegger.

But in the waning hours of last week's special session, lawmakers loaded the bond bill with earmarks in order to muster enough votes for passage, growing the financing by another $2 billion.

"Many of the interests that would be necessary for the bond to pass wanted more in it for them. So that's why you saw the bond grow," said state Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael).

Last-minute earmarks include:

  • $100 million for local and regional water projects just for San Diego County
  • $20 million for the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, which manages recreational and wildlife land in Los Angeles County
  • Another $20 million for economic development in tiny Siskiyou County
  • And $10 million for a UC Merced institute to analyze how climate change might affect water supplies in the Sierra Nevada

"There's a lot of pork," said state Assemblyman Ted Gaines (R-Roseville). "Even some of the things that have merit in a more normal economy should have not have been included now."

If voters pass it, the water bond certainly puts California into deeper debt.

This fiscal year alone, the state is spending $6 billion to pay off existing bonds. That's nearly 7 percent of the entire General Fund.

Add to that the upcoming high-speed rail bond and water bond, yearly debt payments would grow to as much as $10 billion per year, or 10 percent of General Fund spending.

In the last 30 years, debt service typically hovered around 3 to 5 percent.

"It sincerely concerns me because of that extra money that they're trying to use to cover this additional debt is going to come out of education or public services," said Maretta Tufts, a concerned California mother.

The California Constitution mandates that bondholders be one of the first groups to be paid when the state pays bills, and just like your own household budget, bigger debt means less money to spend on things you really want.