BY SAMANTHA YOUNG
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- An $11.1 billion water bond approved this week by California lawmakers is filled with special interest earmarks that reward legislative districts in nearly every corner of the state, from $20 million for economic development in a rural northern county to $10 million to a University of California climate change institute.
An Associated Press review found dozens of projects that were injected into the bond bill to secure enough votes to get it passed. The projects will add tens of millions of dollars to the interest taxpayers will have to pay on the bond if voters approve it next year.
Many of the projects are only peripherally related to the purpose of the legislative package, which is intended to increase California's water supply and restore the ecologically fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
For example, $30 million was earmarked to the state Department of Parks and Recreation for grants for watershed education facilities. Another $20 million is set aside for the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, which manages land for recreation and wildlife and is the Los Angeles district represented by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.
In the final days of negotiations, lawmakers in both chambers padded the bond bill with an additional $1.7 billion, despite previous statements by legislative leaders that the state could not afford such a large bond.
Several lawmakers from both parties said the earmarks were added to gain sufficient votes to pass the most comprehensive water package to come out the Legislature in decades. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had described the bond as a wise investment for the state's future and is expected to sign it next week.
But a handful of Republicans and Democrats criticized the pork barrel projects, saying they pushed the bond's price tag too high while the state is grappling with budget shortfalls and high unemployment. Every $1 billion borrowed at a 6 percent interest rate by the state costs $72.6 million in interest over the 30-year life of the bond, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
"All the parties involved should have said we're in the worst economic crisis in 75 years and we ought to be careful about how we spend our money and not load it up with huge gifts spread out around California in exchange for votes," said Assemblyman Ted Gaines, R-Granite Bay, who voted against the bond.
Gaines said the bond should have focused directly on restoring the delta and building dams, which would have limited the price to $6 billion or less.
Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, said such a narrow water bond would not have been able to garner the necessary support to pass the Legislature, especially with a two-thirds vote requirement for bond measures.
"If you only did it for the delta, then you still have to get everybody else to vote for it," she said. "People who did not see a gift under the tree, maybe they wouldn't vote for this because they don't see the connection of water in the north being delivered to the south."
Adding money for lawmakers' special projects in exchange for votes is not unusual when the Legislature is considering spending bills. In February, for example, Democratic state Sen. Lou Correa of Anaheim was able to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in future property tax revenue for Orange County in exchange for his support of legislation to close a $42 billion budget deficit.
Saldana's district was among those benefiting from the backroom deals cut in the final hours of this week's water debate. The final bill included $100 million for San Diego County for local and regional water projects.
Exactly how that money made it into the bill and how it is to be spent is unclear because no lawmaker in the San Diego delegation has acknowledged asking for it. Saldana told The Associated Press Friday that she was surprised to see the earmark.
Funding for urban water recycling and groundwater supplies was added for Los Angeles-area Democrats whose outspoken mayor complained the bond provided too little money for California's largest city.
"Our needs have to be addressed," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Friday at a news conference.
California's cities weren't the only ones to benefit when the size of the water bond grew from $9.4 billion to $11.1 billion in less than two days.
University of California, Merced was given a $10 million earmark after Christine Galgiani, D-Tracy, and other Central Valley lawmakers requested the money for an institute to analyze how climate change in the Sierra Nevada might affect water supplies.
The Senate added a $20 million earmark for economic development in Siskiyou County after Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, complained the bond paid for the removal of three dams on the Klamath River, a highly controversial project that Aanestad opposes.
"Siskiyou County is looking at a loss of $1.5 million in property tax revenue with the dams coming out, as well as a loss in business tax money," Aanestad spokesman Bill Bird said.
Aanestad, who missed the bond vote, was traveling this week and unavailable for comment.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told reporters the morning after the vote that the extra funding gave members money they needed and wanted. Steinberg was forced to remove his own $10 million earmark for a tolerance center in Sacramento that had little to do with water.
Schwarzenegger already has started traveling the state as part of a campaign to persuade voters to pass the $11 billion bond when it goes before them on the November 2010 ballot. Critics say that's going to be an uphill battle that will be made even more difficult when lawmakers are asked to justify the special-interest projects.
"We seem to function in this bubble that is out of reality, and then it goes to voters," Gaines said. "I just don't see how they support it in this economic era."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.