San Diego Union-Tribune: California action stripping due process, no help with drought

By Patricia C. Bates
Thursday, June 25, 2015

Published by the San Diego Union-Tribune on June 25, 2015

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” is a popular saying said in one form or another by various people in the political arena. It is popular because it epitomizes the desire of some to take advantage of a crisis – such as California’s drought – to permanently expand the reach of government into our daily lives that they would not normally get away with.

Recently, legislative Democrats approved the final California state budget for 2015-16 with Gov. Jerry Brown’s blessing. While there are some things to like, such as increased funding for K-12 and higher education, there were many provisions that I could not support. A prime example is the “drought trailer bill” called Senate Bill 88 that will make major and permanent policy changes to our state’s water laws.

This bill, which the Legislature passed only 24 hours after it was introduced, is being sold as a necessary emergency drought action. Among its many provisions, SB 88 will give local water agencies broad new powers to issue administrative civil penalties of up to $10,000, plus $500 per additional day, for water conservation violations. By allowing local agencies to establish their own proceedings for due process, SB 88 allows them to act as judge, jury and fine collector of alleged water wasters.

Even worse, the bill allows complaints or citations to be issued by a code enforcement officer or any designee of the CEO of a public organization. So conceivably anyone could be deputized on a local level as a water sheriff to issue citations for water conservation violations – whether real or perceived. These deputies/designees also need not have any knowledge or training in water conservation enforcement. This is a recipe ripe for incompetence, abuse, and corruption.

Accused violators could have little recourse to contest a wrongful citation, because the new law allows local agencies to decide how to handle due process. It builds on the troubling trend of the state Legislature delegating its authority to others, such as when it gave the California Air Resources Board enormous flexibility to create new environmental mandates that will affect our economy.

Another troubling provision of SB 88 is that it mandates that water districts merge with other water districts and gives the State Water Resources Control Board enormous power to force those consolidations. Forcing districts with relatively healthy finances to take on others with poor finances could lead to higher water rates for everyone involved. Consolidations of water districts may be warranted in some cases, but it should not be dictated by Sacramento bureaucrats who do not have firsthand knowledge of local circumstances.

That is why nonpartisan organizations such as the League of California Cities, the California State Association of Counties, the California Special Districts Association, the Association of California Water Agencies and the California Chamber of Commerce all oppose SB 88.

Simply put, SB 88 is a devious budget provision that will do little to address California’s drought but will instead allow government to further micromanage communities.

Looking back, the water bond that the voters approved last November took nearly 10 years to negotiate. The bond was the result of many public meetings and negotiations. It is a testament to bipartisanship that almost every lawmaker from every California region voted to place the bond on the ballot.

Unlike the cooperation that defined the water bond, there was none of that with SB 88, which was introduced and passed within 24 hours. This is not enough time to consider such a major change to California’s water policy.

California’s drought requires serious and thoughtful action. As we hope for more rain, I absolutely agree more conservation and smarter laws must be part of a solution. But ramming down a solution that grants government more power will nowhere produce the additional water that our state needs. It will instead further erode our system of checks and balances.