68: A $4 Billion Bond for (Mostly) Water
California voters have shown no reluctance in the past to put water and park spending on the state’s credit card. In 2002, Prop 40 was passed, providing an $2.6 billion for parks and environmental restoration. In 2006, Prop 84 provided another $5.4 billion for water infrastructure. Most recently, voters agreed to borrow another $7.5 billion in 2014 with Prop 1.
What it would do:
Give the state permission to borrow $4.1 billion to fund a variety of green and blue infrastructure projects, including drinking water improvements, habitat restoration projects, levee upgrades, and new parks in low-income neighborhoods.
What it would cost the government:
Paying back the bond with interest is expected to run the state government an extra $200 million annually for the next 40 years on average. Some local governments should save a small amount, totaling the tens of millions, on their public works and parks and recreation budgets.
Why is it on the ballot:
State Sen. Kevin de León, then the leading Democrat in the California Senate, carried the bill to put this on the ballot with the approval of Gov. Jerry Brown, who was reluctant to support anything over $4 billion. De León brought together environmental activists and low income community groups by providing funds for both water infrastructure projects and new green space in disadvantaged communities. Building a broad coalition was a strategy to discourage outside groups from introducing competing ballot initiatives that could confuse voters or split up water bond supporters. It didn’t quite work. An $8.9 billion bond that is more exclusively focused on water projects may be on the November ballot.
Arguments in Favor:
The state has a backlog of aging water infrastructure is not equipped to handle current demand, let alone the added stresses of erratic weather, drought, and rising seas that may come with a changing climate. Meanwhile, there are communities across the state that have long been denied access to green space and recreation areas. Consider this an investment in the state’s environmental future.
And just like any investment project, certainty is key. Long-term borrowing provides state and local agencies with a dedicated stream of cash, ensuring that the projects will actually be completed. Funding these projects out of the annual budget process, as opponents suggest, cannot provide that guarantee.
Since 2002, the state has borrowed over $15 billion on water projects. Future taxpayers already have the state’s public pension obligations to worry about. Rather than saddle them with even more debt, why not prioritize our spending and pay as we go this time?
Much of the park funding will go to urban areas, leaving rural Californians out to dry. And if lawmakers really want to spend $4 billion on new projects, why not dip into the state’s multi-billion dollar surplus?