Politics & Government

Dems reject new offer in dam debate

SACRAMENTO -- Democrats have rejected a last-ditch effort by Gov. Schwarzenegger to get a water bond measure on the February ballot.

Talks are not over. But to strike a deal, lawmakers will likely need an extension of Tuesday's deadline -- and a major breakthrough.

"We have not walked away from negotiations and are always open to discussions," said Lynda Gledhill, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland. "But we still need to see serious compromises from Republicans."

Republicans say they have offered plenty of concessions.

"What we did represents a significant shift for us," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

Like always, the sticking point is dams. The governor's latest offer removed reference to specific dams, including the proposed Temperance Flat reservoir near Fresno. Instead, dams would have competed with ground-water projects for $3.5 billion in state money.

Projects would have been picked based on a five-point scoring system.

Democrats say the system would have favored dams. For instance, one criterion gave advantage to projects that serve "recreational purposes" -- like boating in a reservoir. "The fine print of the new language clearly designates dams for funding," Gledhill said.

Republicans insist the language made the process competitive. Yet they also freely admit the proposal would have resulted in state money for dams. After all, that's their goal.

"We have to be confident at the end of the day that there's a real opportunity for surface storage to become a reality," said Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, who is leading negotiations for the GOP.

Democrats also criticize the governor's offer for not including enough legislative oversight. The water storage money would have been "continuously appropriated," rather than doled out by lawmakers each year.

Talks were at a standstill Friday as Republicans hoped that Perata would make a counter offer.

The governor's original proposal -- which earmarked $5.1 billion for three dams -- was defeated Tuesday by a Democratic-led committee. Perata's plan, which frees local water agencies to bid on state money for water supply projects, was killed a day later on the Senate floor when it failed to draw Republican votes.

Even if the Senate strikes a deal, going will be rougher in the Assembly, where most Democrats have taken an even harder line against using state money for dams.

On Friday, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez told reporters that even Perata's plan went "too far" in terms of allowing money for dams. He all but ruled out a quick compromise.

"I think we're going to miss that [the February] ballot," he said. "I would rather do it right than do it quick."

The next opportunity is the June ballot, but lawmakers are likely to target the November ballot, when turnout will be higher.

If no legislative deal is reached, both sides say they will seek to place their plans on the ballot via a signature-gathering effort, meaning voters could face dueling initiatives.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen has told lawmakers that a deal needs to be done by Tuesday in order to get the bond measure on the Feb. 5 ballot. Cogdill said he doesn't think the deadline is set "in stone."

"I think we could still have a week or two to put this thing together," he said.