A bond measure that failed in the state Senate would have provided more than $1 billion for projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Dan Brekke/KQED)
A bond measure that failed in the state Senate would have provided more than $1 billion for projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

The state Senate failed to pass one of Democratic leaders’ top priorities on Monday: a bill placing a $10.5 billion water infrastructure bond measure before voters this fall.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg framed the 22-9 vote – the bond needs two-thirds support of the full 40-member Senate to pass – as the first step toward a compromise measure he hopes to pass within the next two weeks.

“This debate, no matter what its outcome, is not a loss,” Steinberg said shortly before the vote. “This is an absolutely necessary part of the process that hopefully will lead us to a resolution or a negotiation.”

Steinberg said he’s determined to get a new water infrastructure measure on the ballot. “The drought is now. There is no better time to pass a bond than 2014, given what Californians are going through. The state cannot wait,” he said.

A Suddenly Larger Bond

For most of the year, the Assembly and Senate versions of the water bond had floated between $6.5 billion and $7 billion. But the Senate measure suddenly ballooned to $10.5 billion this week. That’s just shy of the total cost of the 2009 bond measure that’s already slated to appear on the fall ballot. Most political observers view that 2009 bond as doomed because it’s so expensive.

Steinberg said the increase was an attempt to win Republican support by spending more money a top GOP priority: reservoirs and other water storage projects.

“This bond … is the last chance — and maybe even the last day — that they will ever see $2 billion of surface storage in a proposed bond on the floor of the state Senate,” he told reporters before the vote.

In addition to increasing California’s storage capacity, the latest version of the bond would authorize $3 billion for safe drinking water projects, including $100 million for local groundwater development plans. A separate $3.2 billion pot would go toward local wastewater treatment projects, water recycling efforts and other water quality infrastructure improvements.

The plan includes $1.3 billion for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — but no direct money for the controversial Delta tunnel project. That’s not to say a large chunk of that money wouldn’t ultimately end up going toward the tunnel plan. It’s just that it would first be routed to the Delta Conservancy, which would make the decision on how to allocate the funding.

Not Enough Support

But in a sign of how tough it is to corral two-thirds of lawmakers to vote for a big spending project like this, one Republican senator after another took to the floor to say they liked how the bond’s list of projects was developing — but not enough to vote yes.

San Joaquin Valley Sen. Andy Vidak was one of them. “This thing’s getting really really close,” he said,  “and there’s a lot of great things in this.” He then voted no.

The measure came up five votes short. Steinberg says he’ll keep negotiating and try again. He’s set a goal of getting a new bond measure written by early July, when the Senate and Assembly leave Sacramento for their summer break.

Even if a water infrastructure plan clears both the Senate and the Assembly, though, it will still face an uphill battle. Most notably, a governor who appears apathetic at best – and hostile at worst – to sharing the ballot with a multibillion-dollar borrowing plan during an election when he’s running on a record of paying down California’s debt.

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