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Water, ethics bills on tap

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POSTED February 23, 2014 5:02 p.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Drought and water issues will play a prominent role in this year’s legislative session as most of California is dealing with the consequences of one of the driest periods on record.

Since the Legislature reconvened in January, 1,929 bills were introduced in advance of Friday’s deadline.

The legislation reflects a sense of urgency among lawmakers after three dry winters have forced farmers to fallow fields and some communities to declare mandatory water reductions. At least 17 communities have dangerously low drinking water supplies.

The most ambitious drought bill is being pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate. It proposes $687 million to provide immediate help to launch local water recycling and conservation projects while providing housing and food assistance for the driest communities.

Other bills are more narrowly focused, with some trying to spare homeowners from fees or punishment for unwatered lawns.

AB2104 by Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, and SB992 by Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, prevent homeowner associations from penalizing homeowners for having brown lawns. AB1636 by Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, prevents cities and counties from doing the same.

To address California’s long-term water needs with major infrastructure projects, lawmakers from both parties also agree they need to revamp an $11.1 billion water bond measure that already is on the November ballot.

That is likely to be the water-related issue that generates the most debate this year in the Legislature, given the amount of money at stake.

There appears to be general agreement among lawmakers of both parties that the size of the bond needs to be reduced and the special interest projects it included so it would win passage in the Legislature in 2009 should be stripped. Republicans and Democrats in both houses have proposed five different options, ranging from $5.8 billion to $9.2 billion.

Republicans emphasize eliminating the earmarks and prioritizing money for reservoirs and dams.

“If we don’t store it, we don’t have any,” said Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, after a news conference announcing a bill that would authorize the sale of nearly $8 billion in bonds. “I don’t fear the competition from other water bonds as long as eventually we focus on one, the one that makes the most sense, the one that has language that everyone can live with.”

Democrats focus on partnering with outside groups to restore watersheds and ecosystems, as well as making more use of the water already available.

“The era of the very, very large dams is fading quickly,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, architect of a $6.9 billion bond proposal.

She says her focus is on a more realistic proposal that is “effective and affordable, that people are willing to pay for because ultimately these bonds are not free.” Legislative leaders expect a negotiated bill to come together by early summer.

In addition to water issues, the Capitol has been awash in political controversies in recent months that have prompted several reform bills.

Record-setting fines for violations of lobbying and campaign finance rules have led to calls for updating California’s 40-year-old Political Reform Act.

Bills strengthening the state’s campaign watchdog agency and requiring political nonprofits to reveal their donors are expected to sail through the Legislature and be signed by the governor in time for the November election cycle.

Both bills respond to $15 million in anonymous donations funneled through conservative groups into two 2012 initiative campaigns. That prompted a $1 million campaign reporting fine, the largest in state history.

Lobbyist Kevin Sloat, meanwhile, was slapped with a $133,000 fine in part because he threw expensive fundraising parties for the state’s top elected officials at his home. As part of a package of ethics bills, AB1673 by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, would not allow lobbyists to host such parties, even under the current $500 limit.

This legislation plays into the backdrop of the 2014 race to succeed Debra Bowen as California’s secretary of state, the state elections chief.

Candidate Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, proposed bills prohibiting campaign contributions during key periods of the legislative session, requiring immediate disclosure of contributions in election season and limiting candidates to seeking one office at a time. The bills are SB1101 through SB1104.

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