Pressed by a deadline and California's severe drought, state lawmakers are scheduled to vote Wednesday on a measure that would swap out an existing water bond on the November ballot and authorize billions in borrowing to pay for new reservoirs, groundwater cleanup and habitat restoration.
On Tuesday, lawmakers were negotiating what they hoped would be a final agreement with Gov. Jerry Brown for a plan that would boost the state's water supply while protecting the environment. The governor and Democratic legislative leaders had agreed on a $7.2 billion package to replace the existing, $11.1 billion bond, but Republican lawmakers were pressing for more money for water storage.
"This is a very balanced, integrated plan,'' Brown said seated at a table surrounded by representatives from supportive business, agriculture and environmental groups. "It's not a grab bag.''
The compromise measure will need two-thirds support in both houses of the Legislature, which requires backing by Republicans in the Senate, where Democrats lack a supermajority.
GOP leaders and some Central Valley Democrats want $500 million more to provide the money they say is necessary for a reservoir in Colusa County and another in the Sierra Nevada northeast of Fresno.
"It does no good to only build half a dam,'' Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff said in a statement.
Successfully passing a water bond has been an elusive goal for state leaders. The measure already on the ballot was a bipartisan compromise negotiated in 2009 under then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger but was pulled twice from previous ballots.
Lawmakers and Brown's administration saw it as a ballot box loser because of its cost and because it was stuffed with money for special interest projects.
The push to revamp the measure this year has been driven by the state's worst drought in a generation, forcing farmers to fallow fields and local governments to mandate water restrictions.
Provisions in the latest bond proposal involving water recycling and cleanup of contaminated groundwater could increase the availability of water during future droughts. The bond also includes other water projects not directly related to supply, such as watershed improvements and flood management.
Lawmakers have been struggling to find money to meet the demands of constituents and powerful interest groups across the state while heeding the governor's call to minimize state debt.
"We have all stretched to compromise to meet the need for a cost we think we can bear as a state,'' said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.
Some legislators are criticizing the 11th hour nature of the negotiations, marked by closed-door meetings and suspended rules.
Lawmakers already are two months passed the deadline for referring a measure to voters. The Wednesday vote is timed to the secretary of state's deadline for printing voter pamphlets, which lawmakers and Brown pushed back by two days.
"Where have we been and where has the administration been since January?'' said Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, before the vote to extend the deadline. "This water crisis has been around these many months.''
Steinberg, the Senate leader, demurred when asked if lawmakers could delay action again if they cannot reach a deal and vote on it by Wednesday.
"As much as I'm enjoying this and would love for it to go on for many days, I think we want to get this done,'' he said.