Delta Tunnel-Killer Initiative Qualifies for the Ballot

Thursday, November 05, 2015
Dean Cortopassi

It looks like California voters will get a chance next November to kill, or dramatically retool, Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnel plan and probably a whole lot of other state infrastructure projects, like highways.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said the “No Blank Checks Initiative” (pdf), which requires voter approval of any project that relies on more than $2 billion in revenue bonds, has gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Stockton farmer Dino Cortopassi, who opposes the tunnel plan, paid $4 million in the effort, but says it was aimed at a much broader subject of bond indebtedness. The law already requires voters to sign off on general-obligation bonds for public works projects, which are linked to taxpayer dollars in the general fund.

Cortopassi’s initiative would extend that to big-ticket revenue bonds, which rely on independent funding, like bridge tolls—and twin tunnels that would divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to thirsty folks and farmers farther south. The bonds would mostly be repaid by water districts and their users.

Apparently Cortopassi was not listening in May when the governor told critics of the tunnel plan to “shut up.” Brown was unable to win voter approval of his initial push for a Peripheral Canal in 1982, during his first go-round as governor. Undeterred, he jumped right in eight years ago with a new $24.5-billion plan. But after a failed attempt to meld environmental, safety and water supply concerns, the governor decided to just build the damn tunnels.

He whittled $8 billion worth of environmental improvements down to $300 million and reduced the area of wetland and wildlife habitat restoration from 100,000 acres to 30,000, according to Associated Press.

The initiative disdains the unknown of “blank checks” in its informal name, but according to a report (pdf) from the independent state Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), the fiscal effects of the measure on state and local governments is “subject to substantial uncertainty.” The analyst said that twice in the first paragraph about fiscal effects.

The report said it was unclear which projects would qualify under the initiative, though he doubted it would be many. The measure singles out the proposed bullet train as an example of budget-busting projects that need to be better controlled and says it would put “the brakes on our state’s public debt crisis.” Initial funding for the train has come via general-obligation bonds but future funding could be another story.

The analyst also said there was no way to tell how governments would respond if the initiative passes. They could use general-obligation bonds instead, but that might mean less money for other government services.

Or they might turn to the private sector for funding, sharing authority and responsibility for shaping critical public infrastructure with financiers whose objectives they may not share.

–Ken Broder  


To Learn More:

Arcane Bond Measure Sparking Protest (by Steven Greenhut, San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ballot Measure Is New Obstacle to Diverting Water to Southern California (by Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

Governor Brown Tells Critics of His Delta Twin-Tunnel Plan to “Shut Up” (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Initiative Analysis (Legislative Analyst’s Office) (pdf)

No Blank Checks Initiative (pdf)

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