SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers will consider altering an $11.1 billion water bond on the November ballot in an effort to deflect criticism that private corporations stand to benefit.
At issue is a provision in the bond that opponents say could allow private companies to partially own, operate and profit from water projects built with public money.
Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for Republican state Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto said Friday the Legislature wants to make "crystal clear" that public money can be used only for the public's benefit.
Assembly Bill 2775 would ensure that bond money for dams, reservoirs and water banks only go to joint-power authorities made up of public agencies. It is scheduled to be heard Tuesday by the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
Lawmakers placed the bond on the November ballot as part of a legislative package intended to overhaul how Californians store, use and transport water. If it passes, a now-defunct California Water Commission appointed by the governor would be given full authority to allocate $3 billion in funds to storage projects.
As it is written, some of that money could go to a joint-powers authority that has private members to oversee a dam or other storage project. One example might be the Kern Water Bank, once owned by the state but now controlled by Paramount Farms, which is owned by Hollywood billionaire Stuart Resnick.
A need for private sector?
Defenders of the provision argue that private companies, which would be called upon to match state bond dollars on water projects, are essential to ensuring dams get built in California.
"If private entities can't be a part of the JPA managing the reservoir, they are a lot less inclined to invest in the storage project," Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, said in a statement. "That's like a company asking investors to give them money for a startup but not allowing them to be shareholders."
Berryhill, who opposed the bond, urged lawmakers to revamp the measure and eliminate billions of dollars of pork they inserted in the final days to win support in the Legislature.
Other valley lawmakers have backed the bill as an opportunity to boost water supply. Berryhill's brother, Republican Assemblyman Tom Berryhill of Oakdale, lists passing the bond as one of his top priorities for the coming year.
Cogdill ranks getting the water bond before voters as his top accomplishment in 10 years of work in Sacramento. He is not seeking another term in the Senate, but ran uncontested to become Stanislaus County's assessor in last week's primary.
He has said some of the compromises blasted by the bond's critics were necessary to build consensus for the bond among lawmakers around the state.
"Storage has been Sen. Cogdill's first and foremost priority in crafting a bond," Lockhart said. "This bond gives us the best chance of ensuring that California has the storage it needs for really dry years."
Jim Metropulos, an advocate at Sierra Club California, said the proposed joint-powers authority fix would not buy his organization's support of such a costly bond as the state struggles with its finances.
A February poll paid for in part by the Sierra Club suggested that voters likely would reject the bond. A more recent study sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 42 percent of respondents considered passing the bond "very important" and 28 percent called it "somewhat important."
Bill Berryhill is skeptical that the bill can pass.
"It is too late to fix it; the deal has been made," he said. "We need to scrap it all and start over."
Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton contributed to this report.