Argument stalls state’s water bill

By Mark Sherman The Associated Press
Friday September 13, 2002

WASHINGTON — A California lawmaker said a symbolic argument having nothing to do with water is holding up his critical water bill. 

CalFed, a program to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, would get $3 billion if the bill sponsored by Rep. Ken Calvert is passed. The delta provides drinking water for two-thirds of the state and irrigation water for Central Valley crops. 

Calvert, R-Corona, has been trying to get the legislation to the House floor since March. After he helped resolve disputes over water deliveries to Central Valley farmers and a grant program for other western water projects, Calvert now says the bill is being held hostage by an argument over federal labor law. 

At least two other bills to clean polluted waterways and improve railroad tracks used by freight trains are being delayed by the same argument, according to House Democratic leaders. 

The argument is over the Davis-Bacon provision that guarantees high wages for workers on federal construction projects. Democrats on the House Resources Committee, along with a few pro-labor Republicans, tacked it on to the CalFed bill last fall. 

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, told Republicans in the spring that he would not allow a vote on any bill that has the wage language in it. 

“It’s adding unnecessary cost that otherwise might save the taxpayer money,” said Greg Crist, Armey’s spokesman. “It makes no sense to pay more in a way that’s arbitrarily set.” 

On the other side are labor unions and their supporters in Congress. 

“We are perplexed as to why any member of the committee would have opposed this amendment,” wrote Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., in a report accompanying the bill. “The Davis-Bacon law has long been a vital cog in the economic progress of this nation.” 

Calvert, who opposes the wage provision, said the entire argument is irrelevant because California labor law is more generous than federal law. 

“There are people who hold strong opinions on both sides and I’m just trying to get this bill done,” Calvert said. 

Calvert has tried to persuade labor interests that the federal provision is meaningless in California because of state law. But Kathy Roeder, spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, said unions consider it important to have Congress on record in support of the prevailing wage issue. 

Calvert also has tried to convince his own party leaders to back off their position. 

Democrats have argued that Republicans could call for separate votes on the wage language in the three delayed bills. But Republicans don’t want to put the matter to a vote at all. 

Meanwhile, time is running out on Calvert and his hope of getting CalFed through Congress and to the president. Without his bill, or a similar measure in the Senate also awaiting action, CalFed almost certainly will not get an infusion of federal money to pay one-third of its $9 billion cost. 

Calvert said he has no choice but to keep trying to break the stalemate. 

“That’s why legislating is a tough business,” he said. “I’m hoping we can use logic to move this bill ahead.”