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Assembly passes $7.5B water bond, sending it to state Senate
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — The California Legislature on Wednesday was on the verge of placing a revamped water bond on the November ballot, a package that includes billions of dollars to build new reservoirs in a state enduring its third year of drought.

The amount of money dedicated to water storage projects had been the main sticking point for minority Republicans, whose votes were needed to gain the required two-thirds legislative support.

The proposal that emerged after hours of negotiations between Gov. Jerry Brown and leaders from both parties totaled $7.5 billion, with $2.7 billion dedicated to storage.

That is more than Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown had proposed for new reservoirs but less than the $3 billion included in the existing ballot measure that was to be replaced. That version was approved by a previous Legislature in 2009 and had been delayed twice from going to a statewide vote.

“We finally have a water bond with water,” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Rancho Cucamonga, noting that farms and communities throughout the state were suffering from the state’s historic drought.

“We legislators believe this is a solution for our future and believe you should vote for it,” he said.

The measure, SB866, passed the Assembly overwhelmingly Wednesday night on a 77-1 vote, with Republican Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks the lone dissenting vote. It was headed to the state Senate, where equal support was expected.

The swift vote in the Assembly, without debate, was in contrast to the weeks of difficult negotiations to replace the existing and more costly water bond that already was on the November ballot.

Lawmakers from both parties said it was imperative to replace the current water bond, which totals $11.1 billion. They said California needs money for water investments, but the old bond was seen as potentially too costly and too stuffed with pork barrel projects to win voter approval.

Brown wanted a much smaller bond to attract voters and minimize state debt.

The Republican leadership said the compromise that emerged Wednesday would have broad support within their party in both houses of the Legislature.

The financial compromise on reservoirs and other methods of storage also was difficult for Democrats, said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. Many Democratic lawmakers have long advocated for stronger water conservation measures.

“For a long time, Democrats would not talk about storage,” he said. “It’s my job to help put together a two-thirds supermajority, and storage is important to a lot of members and a lot of areas of the state ...”

Democrats hold a supermajority in the Assembly, but not in the Senate. Even so, the governor has said bipartisan support for the bond measure was crucial to show voters that it has wide support.

Numerous agricultural, environmental and business groups quickly endorsed the legislative compromise. The plan includes $7.1 billion in new bonds and $400 million from previous bonds that would be redirected to the updated water priorities. Redirecting that money requires voter approval.

The push to revamp the 2009 ballot measure has been driven by the state’s worst drought in a generation, which has forced farmers to fallow fields, turned large expanses of reservoirs into mud flats and prompted local governments to mandate restrictions and impose fines for water waste.

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.

Wednesday’s scheduled vote was timed to the secretary of state’s deadline for printing voter pamphlets, which lawmakers and Brown pushed back by two days.