Senator Darrell Steinberg on legislative leadership: Getting to a two-thirds vote on the water bond and other seemingly impossible missions

Steinberg 1

At the 2014 fall conference of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), the keynote speaker at Wednesday’s luncheon was Senator Darrell Steinberg. He gave this speech to conference attendees just days after terming out of office and the new legislative members installed. As President pro Tempore of the Senate and the leader of the majority party in the California State Senate from 2008 to 2014, he led both the 2009 water reform package and more recently, the water bond, to passage by the legislature. In his address, he talked about how the water bond came together and how he worked to solve tough policy problems in the state legislature.

Here’s what he had to say.

It’s wonderful to be here. I am in my third day of the private sector after twenty out of the past twenty two years as a public servant, so I just want to begin by thanking Kathleen for her sensitivity in not introducing as the formerly honorable Darrell Steinberg, as people have actually done that … [laughter] So now that I’ve been out for such a long period of time, I’ve had 48 hours to reflect … I want to talk a little bit about our journey together because that journey is not just about water policy in California – it’s about California itself.

Some will say the success of 2014 was due to the historic drought conditions, and I suppose that that was partially true, because the drought was sort of that last impetus to get the job done. But I also believe that oversimplifies what really occurred.

I want to talk about four things. I want to talk about 2009 – 2014 and the journey; I want to talk about the importance of distinguishing between what you want and what you need; I want to talk about the importance of coalition politics and politics is the art of the possible; and I want to talk about the importance of implementation.

Steinberg 2Let us begin with the story of water from 2009 to 2014. As I said a moment ago, the drought was one impetus, but I recall back in 2009, the year of the worst recession in modern California history, and my ascension to the office of President Pro-Tem in December of 2008, being told three weeks later that I was inheriting a $42 billion budget deficit on a base budget of $100 billion. Thank you very much. And at the same time, what goes with fiscal dysfunction and deficits is a sense which was certainly prominent back in those days that California itself was ungovernable – that the initiative process together with the 2/3rds supermajorities, partisan wrangling, and all of the other constitutional layers that had been imposed upon California government for the past 30 or 40 years made it impossible to govern.

And certainly in 2009 when it came to the budget, it was not a perfect year. But the record will show that beginning in February of 2009, when the state was several days away from an economic Armageddon and the collapse of the bond markets and further, even more deep catastrophe than otherwise occurred, we passed a budget that dented the deficit from $22 billion to $29 billion, and the record will show that from that date on, the deficit continued its downward spiral until the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012. As we stand here today, California has a responsible but healthy budget surpluses and the era of deficit is over. [applause]

And that matters. It matters to water. But I remember back ’09 … sometimes people describe me as being a bit too enthusiastic. People would draw cartoons with me tilting at windmills and that sort of thing, but I didn’t have much of a background in water when I came to the office. I had chaired the water resources committee for two years so I had a little bit of a background which was very helpful, but as much as I cared about the water issue in ’09, I cared about something even more profound. I wanted to be a leader that proved that the California legislature can actually get something big done in the midst of this terrible crisis, and though the ’09 water package was historic but imperfect, in fact we showed through a very difficult, difficult process, the 2/3rds supermajority, Democrats and Republicans, that we could in fact pull that together.

Now, we weren’t ready to go the ballot on the bond in 2010, because the deficit and the economic crisis still was out there, and the voters through the polling said, ‘don’t you dare’; same thing in 2012 as we were trying to pass a tax increase, and then in ’14 we finally made it. But I think it is fair to say but for that 2009 effort, where we accomplished significant reform around how to govern the Delta, 20% conservation requirements, water recycling and a whole host of other stuff and policies, that had it not been for the imperfect 2009 effort, we would have never succeeded in 2014.

Lake Oroville
Lake Oroville

So yes, it was the drought that was the further impetus, but really the story of water in California, parallels the story of California itself. In ’09 we put it together that it really wasn’t ready for prime time. By 2014, the people had sufficient confidence in California’s ability to govern itself. Look what happened at the ballot in 2014. The two measures that passed overwhelmingly, the water bond and the rainy day fund, were the two measures that were put on by the legislature with the support of the Governor and the leadership of the Governor; the people said alright, it’s working pretty well and the need is obvious, therefore let us vote for this. So you ought to take great pride at ACWA as I take great pride in the fact that we stand together.

I know I left office two days ago and the state was in better shape than when I started. We consistently stepped up; we never shied from the difficult decisions. We made the cuts that were unfathomable to me, and cuts that I certainly did not come into office to pass or to support, but you do what you have to do. As a result now, we not only passed a water bond, but we can actually talk about implementation. We can actually talk about public policy. We can actually implement groundwater legislation. We can talk about higher education and reinvesting and all the other positive controversies that we’ll see in the legislature this year that are about building and not just holding on.

Number two, I learned this in the water world that there is a difference between what you want and what it is you need. When we passed the bond in 2009, we set a marker for storage. It was $3 billion. ACWA and a lot of my colleagues felt that $3 billion itself was insufficient and it probably was insufficient for all of the needs, but this isn’t the only water bond in the state’s history. I’m sure it will not be the last, but $3 billion was the marker.

Then we got to 2014 and this set of negotiations, and there were a number of risks and a number of ways this thing could have easily fallen apart. And Governor Brown, as is his want, being fiscally prudent, which is a good thing, in some ways made our water negotiations even more difficult, because he said ‘you guys, $11 billion,’ which we knew was too high, so we figured $9 billion. We cut it back, we cut every part, somewhat proportionally … he comes in at $6 billion. And then negotiation over course of two weeks was saying, ‘Governor, $6B is not getting it done.’ …

We came in actually at $7.5 with a bit of different formulation, and we were able to inch the Governor up, but the problem was still the same. With a $7B bond – it was actually a little less than $7 billion but we took funds from the prior bond and added to the $7.1. There was no way politically we could sustain $3 billion for storage on a base of $7 billion. It didn’t work. We couldn’t hold the left, we hold the environmental community, we couldn’t hold the caucus, and yet it had been embedded in this sort of water psyche in terms of the negotiation that especially on the Republican side and the moderate Democrats, we needed $3 billion.

So I remember the day final day of the negotiation, my friend and colleague Bob Huff took me aside and said, “You know, we can’t do this without $3 billion.” And Bob is a good guy and I couldn’t negotiate with him on it; I could just tell, the look in his eye and the way that he said it to me, that he needed to say that and say it convincingly, but I knew that there’s no way that his caucus was going to turn away from $2.7 billion. That’s what we ended up with and by midday it started rolling. Everybody said yes and we had a water package, and the difference between what you want or what you think you want, and what it is that you need.

The same thing occurred around the very difficult issues around the Delta. You want to talk about difficult water policies, how about this fact: in 2009, the Delta stakeholders, and that was always the tough spot here … in 2009, I was in northern California pro-tem, the first pro-tem in 125 years from Sacramento … but I was torn, and this is symbolic of representing a democracy itself, between my duties to my district, which of course and first and foremost, but I also had statewide responsibility.

The Delta stakeholders are rightfully concerned about the future of the Delta; they are principled good people, they are my friends, and they have some very important good points, but that’s not the only thing going in the water world, and so I was in a bit of a difficult place.

Steinberg 3Here’s how you have to be flexible in politics because in 2009, it was the Delta stakeholders who insisted that there be more money in the bond for the Delta and Delta mitigation itself. ‘We want more money; otherwise you’re not taking care of the Delta.’ OK, we ended up putting $2.5 billion in funds for Delta ecosystem restoration. It still wasn’t enough, and Lois Wolk, who is a great member and led the effort on the water bond – let’s just say after I forced that through that I did not get a Hanukkah card from her that year. I will just say that. We didn’t talk for awhile, but it all ended in good time.

Here’s the cream part of the story. By the way Westlands and the Met and some parts of the ACWA coalition said, ‘we don’t want that much money for the Delta.’ It’s not that they were hostile, but this is a negotiation in politics. In 2014, it’s Westlands and it’s the other stakeholders who are primarily interested in conveyance saying, ‘We want more money for the Delta, because more money for the Delta means that we’ll have money then to mitigate the environmental impacts of the conveyance.’ And the Delta stakeholders saying, ‘We don’t want any money for the Delta, because that’s going to be used as an excuse to further the tunnels.” So again, the difference between what you want and what you need. We ended up in the 2014 bond actually providing money that can be used by the administration for Delta ecosystem restoration, but we didn’t put it into a Delta pod, and we didn’t shine a big light on it so that it would be a big political con. Nobody was fooling anybody, but there was an art to making sure that money was available to help, although mitigation is largely a private responsibility, and not making it so obvious that it created a political problem.

This moves me to number three which is: politics as the art of the possible and the importance of coalition building. I often reflect on my years in government and state what is so obvious but those who get frustrated with government often forget – that those guys, what were their names – Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams – they built a system in the United States that was borrowed by state governments as well that put a premium on stopping things as opposed to getting things done. I think it’s an inherent challenge in a democracy where things move very fast and where the requirement for progress outpaces often the ability of representative government with checks and balances to actually go and get something done. But that’s the reality. We prize liberty. We don’t want a Governor, no matter how well intentioned or good to be a (indistinguishable) …

I remember Arnold Schwarzenegger once said to me, I don’t’ think it was around water but it was another issue, he said, I only have one ask of you. ‘Oh what’s that Governor?’ He said, ‘I would like you to delegate to me unlimited power for 24 hours … “ [laughter] I think he was kidding. I politely declined the offer, but it was borne out of his own frustration that executives …

For example, I have never met a governor and I’ve dealt with three of them now – it doesn’t matter if they are Republican, Democrat, conservative, or liberal – they all view the legislature as a bit of a necessary nuisance. They would love us to take more breaks and long vacations; they would love us to get out of the way. That’s not personal, I realized over time. It is in fact institutional, and so you have these built in checks.

State Capital side view smallerThen of course, you have the same checks and balances within the legislative body itself, especially when you’re talking about a two-thirds supermajority vote to put a bond on the ballot. You have geographical checks, you have party checks, and you have checks between people who should be allies but in the moment are not because one member is mad at that member for not doing right by them on an issue maybe completely unrelated to the issue that you’re dealing with at the time, I will tell you. I know I’m probably breaking your pure view of the way government and politics works, but that’s the truth.

It is much easier in representative government to defeat something than to actually make something happen. And that’s what it gets so amazing about what we all did together around water. Don’t forget that the vote in the senate for the 2014 water bond did not just achieve the two-thirds by one or two votes, it was a unanimous vote, and there are only two no votes in the Assembly.

When it comes to coalition building, people are so desperate; they are so desperate for their government to produce, they are not demanding of perfection. In our districts, other elected officials know this as well. They will tolerate disagreeing with you on an element or several elements of the work you are doing so long as you are actually doing something and it is moving your state or your city in the right direction. What they don’t want, what they won’t tolerate is a sense of inertia or gridlock or just nothing being done. And we broke that multi-decade sense around water, and we did so by building coalition that let everybody have not just their dignity but let everybody be able to truthfully proclaim progress.

You have to be flexible. I had to be flexible as a leader in understanding how coalitions can shift as well. I remember 2009 again I had Lois Wolk and Fran Pavley on opposite sides of the water debate. Fran was committed. In fact, in the end, Lois defeated Fran’s water rights bill in the 2009 package because she thought by bringing that down, it would unravel the entire coalition and then they’d be able to defeat the entire 2009 effort.

In 2014, they’d obviously sent each other some Hannukkah and Christmas cards over the years because they worked together, and they are a formidable duo, one from the south, one from the north, both highly intelligent and both fighters for their districts and for what they believe. And what they achieved, this time together, was that you shouldn’t give away surface storage with continuous appropriation when nothing else in the bond allows for a continuous appropriation, so I had to go back to the principle of the original owner and deal, which …might have been the breakthrough on the whole water thing.

Democrats by and large, aren’t big fans of surface storage. They largely believe, and this is from the environmental side, that there are more cost effective and cost efficient ways to build or to deal with California’s water problems. I believe philosophically in the portfolio approach – that you need a lot of everything. But I knew if we were ever going to make progress in water in 2009 and again in 2014, that on my side, we were going to have to agree to the following: give on the storage between 2.5 and 3 billion, and then get $4.5 to $5 billion of all the other good stuff – the conservation and the recycling and the regional water strategies and all of the things that allow communities to determine how to best use those resources.

Gov signs water bondIn the end, that basic concept of a coalition is what got us the first victory in 2009, and the ultimate victory in 2014. For if the Democrats had said, ‘we’re not doing surface storage; we don’t’ believe in it,’ we never would have gotten the bond. And if the other side had said, ‘we demand the $3 billion or $3.5 billion because you can legitimately demonstrate that need for three surface storage projects,’ was Governor Brown demanding that the overall cost number be held down? The Governor would have gotten a bond (indistinguishable).

So in some ways, the story of California over the last six years, and certainly the story of water, has defied that conventional wisdom that you can’t get anything big done in government, that politics is too polarized, that people are too self interested, and the stakeholders themselves are unwilling to bend because they only know what they know and know what they want as opposed to what it is they need. You and we defied all of that, and as a result now, we made great progress.

Which leads to the last point and that is the importance of implementation. Because I have often said as I passed laws that a law itself is only as good as the piece of paper it’s written on. There are so many instances of great ideas, great ideals, and great visions that are put into the statute books where implementation so flawed that people forget the excitement and the importance of why the law or the set of laws was passed in the first place.

So 2015 here for ACWA is rightfully the year of implementation, because how do we go about making sure that these public resources are spent effectively and efficiently – not being afraid to toot your own horns and market that which is working and to tout the new projects and to show the results under each of these categories is absolutely essential, because we know one thing: that as much as we celebrate our victories in 2014, the work is not done.

Thank God for the rain here today, but we’re living in a weird time of history when it comes to the weather. When it comes to climate, and I guarantee you this is not the last time that you or your representatives in government will have to confront a water crisis or a water challenge. And so the only way that we can ensure success, whether its 4 years or 6 years or 8 years from now, is for policy makers and the public, which has a long memory, to be able look and say, wow, I remember when they passed that 2014 bond, look what they did with it in my community, in our communities, and throughout California.

And so that, I suppose, is the wrap so to speak. I am grateful that I had the opportunity over this historic period of time to work with you, to be part of your success and most importantly, to be able to show, if not the public but at least ourselves, the possibility of progress.

People do not expect you to solve every problem overnight. They don’t expect that it’s ever going to be perfect. But they rightfully insist that we take the job seriously and that we don’t let the petty get in the way of what is substantive and important.

That’s California in water in 2009 and 2014.

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