Water & Drought

Measure that imperils Delta tunnels plan qualifies for 2016 ballot

A 2008 aerial view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. A ballot measure eligible for the November 2016 ballot would give voters a say on the twin tunnels project and other public works projects funded by revenue bonds.
A 2008 aerial view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. A ballot measure eligible for the November 2016 ballot would give voters a say on the twin tunnels project and other public works projects funded by revenue bonds. Sacramento Bee file

A constitutional amendment that would erect a significant political hurdle for Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans to build twin tunnels to carry water south around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta advanced Monday to the November 2016 ballot.

Wealthy Stockton-area farmer and food processor Dean Cortopassi and his wife, Joan, have bankrolled the No Blank Checks Initiative ballot effort, pumping $4 million into the petition drive, consultants and other expenses since March.

Under the proposed measure, any revenue bonds for public works involving the state would have to go to a public vote. That would complicate Brown’s planned strategy to pay for the twin tunnels, which rests on water users financing bonds to help fund the $15 billion project.

“It would be very problematic for creating a secure water supply in California,” Robin Swanson, a consultant working with the pro-tunnels Californians for Water Security, said Monday.

The measure also poses problems for other public-works projects, with critics saying it would block repairs to roads and bridges and force statewide votes on many types of local borrowing proposals. Construction unions and business groups created Citizens to Protect California Infrastructure, which last week reported that it had raised $122,000 during the summer and had $73,000 on hand as of Sept. 30.

“This measure worsens an already grave situation, and threatens our economy and job creation,” Robbie Hunter, president of the California State Building and Construction Trades Council, said in a statement, adding that opponents will “mount an aggressive campaign to defeat this misleading initiative.”

Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, called the measure “both deceptive and dangerous.” Unlike general-obligation borrowing approved by voters and paid back with taxpayer dollars, revenue bonds have no impact on statewide finances, he said.

The measure also could upend possible sources of money to help build the $68 billion high-speed rail system connecting Northern and Southern California. Voters in 2008 approved about $9 billion in initial funding for the project, but officials have said the state could leverage cap-and-trade revenue to secure additional financing. In July, though, Cortopassi consultant Tom Ross said the constitutional amendment would apply to that.

Ross declined to comment Monday, referring questions to a Cortopassi spokeswoman, who was unavailable.

The Cortopassis largely have stayed publicly silent since filing their proposed constitutional amendment in January. The measure’s preamble, though, conveys a focus on what it calls the “state’s public debt crisis.”

“This measure puts the brakes on our state’s public debt crisis by giving the voters a say in all major state bond debt proposals that must be repaid through specific revenue streams or charges imposed directly on Californians like taxes, fees, rates, tolls, or rents,” it reads, while never mentioning the Delta or tunnels project.

In 2008, Dean Cortopassi came out against proposals then to move water around the Delta. “I will fight to the death to protect the Delta, because I love it,” he said then.

Through Sept. 30, the No Blanks Check campaign committee reported spending almost $3.4 million, including almost $2.67 million in petition costs. The campaign listed a debt of $1 million to Dean Cortopassi and $705,000 cash on hand.

Monday was the deadline for counties to finish sampling the nearly 933,000 voter signatures turned in by the measure’s backers. As of earlier in the day, proponents were only 49,000 valid voter signatures short of qualifying for the ballot without a full signature count, with several counties still to report their sampling of more than 120,000 voter signatures.

Among those was San Bernardino County, where the campaign turned in almost 73,000 signatures. About 53,000 of those signatures are projected to be valid, based on numbers provided by the county elections office Monday. That was more than enough to qualify the measure, with the secretary of state’s office making it official Monday evening.

Three other measures already are qualified for next fall’s ballot, including a referendum on the state’s law banning single-use plastic bags. Cortopassi would have until June 30, 2016, to decide to withdraw his amendment.

Dozens of other proposals, meanwhile, are in various stages of signature collection and verification.

Brown, whose campaign account held almost $24 million at midyear, “is strongly opposed to this initiative,” according to a spokesman.

“This is a really bad idea that would cause costly delays in repairing our roads, colleges and water systems and make it harder to respond to natural disasters,” spokesman Gareth Lacy said.