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Published June 30, 2010, 01:31 PM

Schwarzenegger seeks to take water bond off ballot

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday urged lawmakers to pull an $11.1 billion water bond off the November ballot after spending much of the last year fighting to get it there.

By: Don Thomposon, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday urged lawmakers to pull an $11.1 billion water bond off the November ballot after spending much of the last year fighting to get it there.

The Republican governor had said improving the state’s water storage and delivery system was one of his top priorities. He now says the timing is poor and wants to delay the measure until 2012.

Schwarzenegger said the prospects for approval would be hurt by putting the measure on the ballot now, while the state faces a $19 billion budget deficit and record unemployment.

Instead, he said the focus in the Capitol should be on fixing the deficit, reforming government pensions and creating long-term budget reforms.

“It’s critical that the water bond pass, as it will improve California’s economic growth, environmental sustainability and water supply for future generations,” the governor said in a statement. “For that reason, I will work with the Legislature to postpone the bond to 2012 and avoid jeopardizing its passage.”

The Legislature would need to agree for the measure to come off the ballot.

Schwarzenegger’s call for delaying the bond measure had support from both lead negotia-tors in last year’s water legislation.

“While I believe we must immediately invest in our water future, timing is everything and I’m willing to wait to bolster voter understanding of this critical measure,” Republican state Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto said in a statement.

Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento said he supports the delay because the state’s current financial problems might jeopardize the measure.

The governor’s office will begin working with lawmakers to remove the Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act from the ballot, Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said.

“It’s crucial that we do everything we can to protect the water bond by giving it the best opportunity to succeed,” he said.

Jim Earp, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs and co-chairman of the coalition to pass the water bond, agreed the measure will have a better chance in 2012.

The bond is intended to upgrade California’s vast water system, which was built decades ago for a population about half the size of today’s 38.5 million people. It would provide money to clean up contaminated groundwater, boost conservation efforts, update sewage systems and research the possibility of building at least two dams sought by farming interests to boost their water supply.

It was criticized in part because lawmakers added at least $1.7 billion in pork barrel projects that had little if anything to do with improving the water supply. For example, $20 mil-lion was earmarked for a conservancy that manages park land in the Los Angeles district represented by then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.

The earmarks would have become a prime campaign target of the bond’s opponents. A spokesman for the Sierra Club, which opposes the measure, called the bond bloated and said it was too costly for voters to swallow.

“I think the governor has come to a realization that this bond is a turkey hanging from his neck,” said Jim Metropulos, a senior advocate with the Sierra Club in California. “It just has a lot of bad things in it. There’s numerous pork within the bond, and the projects they would fund really have nothing to do with taking care of our urgent water supply needs.”

To reduce the effects on California’s general fund, lawmakers required that only half the water bond could be sold in the first five years if voters approved it. The Legislature’s non-partisan analyst’s office estimated it would cost the state $725 million to $810 million a year in interest after the entire bond was sold.

The postponement is a setback for the legacy Schwarzenegger had hoped to leave from his time as governor. He had hailed its passage last November as a landmark accomplishment for his administration.

“I’m so excited that finally my vision is one step closer to becoming a reality,” Schwarzenegger told a news conference at the time, flanked by lawmakers from both major political parties. He said he had first proposed the water package in his infrastructure and strategic growth plans in 2006.

The $11.1 billion bond was part of a larger package of water bills passed by the Legislature. The others already are being implemented, including one that created a stewardship council to oversee water management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. That council will have the final say over whether to build a canal or tunnel to route river water around the delta to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities.

Legislators hope to remove the water bond before Aug. 9, when the secretary of state is scheduled to start printing general election ballots, said Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

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