In the months when California’s legislative engines idle, talk turns to the non-bill-related machinations within the Capitol.
A prominent topic this year is the intrigue around who will lead the Senate and the Assembly when their current leaders term out in 2014. Assemblyman Anthony Rendon’s name surfaces often as an inner-circle contender, but the freshman Democrat from Lakewood calls such talk premature.
“We have a speaker,” Rendon demurs. He says his attention is elsewhere.
“The water bond will be the No. 1 priority of this office moving forward into 2014,” Rendon said. “Water is the big thing here.”
The Legislature has twice deferred an $11.1 billion water bond from a statewide vote since first voting in 2009 to place the measure on the ballot. The consensus among lawmakers seems to be that the bond is dead in the water – too large and too many questions around how it came together for voters to get on board.
That doesn’t mean the Legislature has given up on finding money for water projects. Parallel proposals for slimmed-down bonds, one authored by Rendon, one carried by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and one championed by Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville, offer alternatives that will dominate the discussion around water issues this year.
Already the author of a bill phasing out lead ammunition – perhaps the most significant gun bill to win the governor’s signature this year – Rendon will now head the Assembly effort to shape a palatable alternative to the 2009 water bond.
He’ll need to incorporate competing priorities into a proposed $6.5 billion measure that will inevitably fall far short of the state’s total water needs: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Rendon notes, has estimated California needs to spend $44.5 billion over the next 20 years on drinking water alone.
A newly formed Assembly water bond working group chaired by Rendon includes members from around the state, all bringing distinct regional concerns. Southern lawmakers want money for the Salton Sea. Central Valley members worry about the Delta and agriculture. A San Fernando Valley lawmaker has emphasized combating groundwater contamination. The bond is formally titled the Climate Change Response for Clean and Safe Drinking Water Act, and Rendon talks about compensating for less water flowing out of a diminishing Sierra snowpack.
“Could we find more money for different areas for any category of water? Of course, whether that’s drinking water or levees or conveyance,” Rendon said. “What’s important is to find something the voters can approve, sort of a sweet spot in terms of the overall dollar amount but also something that makes sure we address all the water needs of the state.”
Rendon disavows any connection between the push for a new water bond and Gov. Jerry Brown’s fiercely disputed Bay Delta Conservation plan, which calls for two massive water conveyance tunnels and thousands of acres of Delta habitat restoration.
That project is the governor’s baby, Rendon said, while the task of crafting bonds and getting them to the ballot falls to the Legislature, and both bonds expressly prohibit spending on conveyances.
“I see the bond as addressing a whole host of needs independent of the Delta plan,” Rendon said. “I think if hypothetically the governor were to give up on his tunnel plan tomorrow, there are still needs in the Delta that need to be addressed.”
Rendon joined the Assembly along with 38 other legislative newcomers in 2012, adding his vote to a historically large freshman class. Rendon cruised to victory, securing nearly 75 percent of the vote in the resoundingly Democratic and Latino Los Angeles-area 63rd Assembly District.
Before winning his seat, Rendon headed the California League of Conservation Voters and Plaza de la Raza Child Development Services, a social welfare organization focused on young children and their families. David Allgood, who worked with Rendon at the conservation league, recalled a “quietly effective” advocate who excelled at communicating with various factions on a given issue.
“I think he has a knack for kind of only stepping in when things are going astray, and I think that brings out the best in most people,” said Allgood, the league’s political director, calling Rendon “engaged but hands-off.”
That experience will be necessary if Rendon is to unify the disparate streams in water politics. On a recent Monday morning in Stockton, in a room dominated by a table stacked with the “Stop the Tunnels. Save the Delta” signs that proliferate along the region’s roads and highways, Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, told a skeptical audience about her work as a member of the Assembly working group.
An advocate for Central Valley interests, Eggman projected enthusiasm for the group’s progress and underscored Rendon’s environmentalist bona fides as a sign he would be receptive to concerns about the Delta’s complex ecosystem, the location of his district notwithstanding.
“He sort of gets it,” Eggman said.