ACWA Advocates for Balanced Alternative to Drinking Water Tax During Emotional Budget Subcommittee Hearings at the Capitol by Emily Allshouse Mar 16, 2018 Water News This week during budget subcommittee hearings in the Assembly and Senate, ACWA and several member agencies testified in opposition to the drinking water tax proposed in the Brown Administration’s budget trailer bill related to safe drinking water, and instead strongly advocated for ACWA’s alternative funding proposal which would meet the goal of the proposed legislation without a tax on drinking water. Wednesday’s budget hearing included lengthy and emotional public testimony in support of the tax by dozens of men, women and children from disadvantaged communities that lack safe drinking water. ACWA’s testimony at both hearings emphasized the water community’s dedication to advancing solutions to this real and serious problem, while standing firmly in opposition to an impractical and unnecessary tax on drinking water. Assembly Hearing – Wednesday, March 14 Cautioning attendees that the day’s agenda was “packed,” Assembly Budget Subcommittee No. 3 on Resources and Transportation Chair Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) began Wednesday’s hearing with an initial announcement that he would limit public testimony to name, organization and position. After working through 11 other issues on its agenda, the budget trailer bill proposal was taken up last by the committee. ACWA Director of State Legislative Relations Wendy Ridderbusch provided the lead opposition testimony during public comment. “We support a credible and equitable funding mix – an alternative – that includes ongoing federal safe drinking water state revolving fund dollars, reliable general obligation water bond money, focused nitrate assessments and the state’s general fund to create a funding source, for instance a protected and secured endowment fund, to pay for operation and maintenance costs,” said Ridderbusch. “We feel that we need this balanced funding portfolio package to ensure that there is safe and affordable drinking water in the communities that don’t have access to it.” “Why can’t we work together? Why can’t we try something different?” she added. Representatives from ACWA member agencies and associates also testified in opposition to a drinking water tax and in support of ACWA’s alternative funding proposal during public comment. Those agencies included: California Municipal Utilities Association, Irvine Ranch Water District, South Tahoe Public Utility District, Carmichael Water District, Hidden Valley Lake Community Services District, City of Santa Rosa, City of Burbank, Camrosa Water District, Yuba County Water Agency, East Valley Water District, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, City of Fresno, United Conservation Water District, Zone 7 Water, Westlands Water District, Mojave Water District, Western Municipal Water District, Alameda County Water District, Eastern Municipal Water District, Mesa Water District, Santa Margarita Water District, Helix Water District, San Diego County Water Authority, Regional Water Authority, Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, Municipal Water District of Orange County, Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, City of Watsonville, and Otay Water District. Opposition to the drinking water tax was also expressed by the League of California Cities, California Special Districts Association, and Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, among several others. Those testifying in support of the proposed tax on drinking water included: Community Water Center, Western Growers, Environmental Defense Fund, Water Foundation and approximately 50 residents from disadvantaged communities that lack safe drinking water. “Support this bill, or drink our water,” they implored the subcommittee. After hearing all testimony, the subcommittee opted to hold the item open to allow further consideration of the issues involved before making a decision. Additionally, to inform the subcommittee’s deliberations, Bloom asked State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus to respond to opposition concerns that were raised during the hearing in a letter addressed to the subcommittee. Senate Hearing – Thursday, March 15 Just as it had been the day before in the Assembly, the budget trailer bill was the last item on the agenda for the Senate Budget Subcommittee No. 2 on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation hearing. Interestingly, in discussing earlier agenda items, subcommittee members debated the merits of using the state’s general fund versus special funds for issues of statewide importance. During that debate subcommittee Chair Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) appeared to be supportive of some uses of the general fund under this heading. Ed Manning, who represents Mojave Water District, Westlands Water District, and Western Municipal Water District, kicked off public comments with a reminder to the subcommittee that the drinking water tax proposal before them has not received any review by a legislative policy committee. He also expressed his concerns with using the budget trailer bill process to vet high-priority, substantive policy issues rather than a transparent legislative policy committee process. Ridderbusch then testified on behalf of ACWA continuing to deliver key messages regarding opposition to a drinking water tax and specifically highlighting recent ACWA-sponsored polling that shows that 74% of Californians believe the state should using existing funds for safe drinking water. Additionally, the polling shows that Californians believe it is not appropriate to tax a resource that is essential to life. She also expressed concerns over the precedent of the tax. “It’s not just going to be a dollar a month, like we’ve heard…” Ridderbusch said regarding the tax, noting that there are other parties vying for funds from a tax on water for many other purposes. Following Ridderbusch’s testimony many of the same ACWA member agencies and associates testified in alignment with ACWA’s position. Orange County Water District, Rincon Del Diablo Municipal Water District, Olivenhain Municipal Water District, Padre Dam Municipal Water District, and Long Beach Water also weighed in to oppose a tax on drinking water. Additionally, several other groups expressed opposition to the agricultural enforcement relief provisions included in the bill, citing inconsistency with the “polluter pays” principle, which was noted by the subcommittee. Those testifying in support included many of the same organizations from the previous day’s hearing in the Assembly but also several other organizations such as the Rural County Representatives of California, Public Health Advocates, and the American Heart Association, among others. Throughout the discussion on the budget trailer bill, members of the subcommittee asked thought-provoking questions and voiced points consistent with ACWA’s arguments. Specifically, Wieckowski noted the problematic approach of requiring water districts to collect a tax on water with an exemption for those with income equal to or less than 200% of the federal poverty level when agencies have no mechanism to verify that information. Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) expressed concerns regarding the nexus of the tax, asking if his constituents in Los Angeles could expect their safe drinking water needs to be addressed with the funding mechanism. At the conclusion of the hearing, Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) reiterated earlier concerns related to using the budget trailer bill process rather than the policy committee process to vet such an important policy. After hearing all testimony, the subcommittee opted to hold the item open to allow further consideration of the issues involved before making a decision. Next Steps ACWA is extremely thankful for the engagement of the many ACWA member agencies and associates that testified in opposition to a tax on drinking water during these hearings. Because the budget trailer bill was left open in both the Assembly and Senate, both budget subcommittees can choose to take up the bill at any time, without further public input. ACWA will carefully monitor the activity of these subcommittees. Additionally, ACWA members also should be aware that while SB 623 (Monning, 2017) could be moved from the Assembly Rules Committee at any time, action on SB 623 is not expected while the budget trailer bill is pending. ACWA will keep members informed on critical developments as the budget trailer bill process advances, and if SB 623 is moved. ACWA continues to lead a team of advocates that is lobbying the coalition’s oppose-unless-amended position at the Assembly and the Senate. Questions For questions regarding the budget trailer bill or ACWA’s advocacy on the bill, please contact ACWA Deputy Executive Director for Government Relations Cindy Tuck or ACWA Director of State Legislative Relations Wendy Ridderbusch. Both can be reached at (916) 441-4545.