SACRAMENTO -- Faced with potential defeat of one of his top priorities, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday called for delaying the $11 billion water bond from November's ballot to 2012.
The governor's proposal -- which requires legislative approval -- comes as state lawmakers are struggling to close a $19.1 billion hole in the state budget for the fiscal year that starts Thursday.
Opponents of the bond, including some public employee unions, already have cited the state's budget problems as one reason not to pass the measure.
"After reviewing the agenda for this year, I believe our focus should be on the budget," the governor said in a statement. He said he would "work with the Legislature to postpone the bond to 2012 and avoid jeopardizing its passage."
The bond, part of major water legislation approved by lawmakers last year, has money for projects across the state, potentially including a dam east of Fresno.
Mario Santoyo, an assistant general manager at Friant Water Users Authority, a bond supporter who has long pushed for the dam, said: "I'm not happy about it, but one has to be logical about it and it is probably the only choice that they had."
Key lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said they support the move, including Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto.
"While I believe we must immediately invest in our water future, timing is everything and I'm willing to wait to bolster voter understanding of this critical measure," Cogdill said in a statement.
But other lawmakers were skeptical.
"I fear that we may lose the momentum we were able to build in bringing so many parties together to agree to place the bond on the ballot." said Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter.
Delaying the bond requires approval from two-thirds of the Legislature. A vote could come soon, although lawmakers would appear to have as late as Aug. 9, the deadline for sending voter guides to the printer.
The ballot measure, known as Proposition 18, has support from big farm groups and some labor unions representing workers in the construction sector, which could benefit from the new spending. But some fiscal conservatives say the bond is laden with pork, while environmental groups are against the state spending money on dams.
The politically powerful California Teachers Association union also opposes the bond.
"With an already outrageous budget deficit," the state could not afford debt payments on the bond, CTA President David Sanchez said in a statement. He said it would take "even more money away from our students, our schools and other essential services."
At its peak, the bond would cost the state up to $809.3 million in annual debt payments, assuming a 30-year payment schedule, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
Bond supporters would face a tough fight this year, said Tony Quinn, a political analyst. "Historically, bond issues fail during hard economic times," he said. "The people don't want to spend more money right now."
A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, however, offered a glimmer of hope to supporters, showing that 66% of respondents considered the bond either "very important" or "somewhat important."
"It would have required a well-funded campaign to educate voters, of course, but securing passage for the water bond was definitely winnable," said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the "yes" campaign, which supports the governor's proposed delay.
Schwarzenegger is among the campaign's biggest fundraising boosters. But the governor this year might also have his hands full defending another one of his top priorities: the state's new global warming law.
A measure to suspend the law recently qualified for the November ballot.