State lawmakers may ask us to ‘donate’ a monthly fee to fund clean drinking water. Bad idea

Students at Pleasant Valley Elementary School outside San Miguel have been drinking bottled water on account of the high arsenic content in an onsite well. A new well is under construction.
Students at Pleasant Valley Elementary School outside San Miguel have been drinking bottled water on account of the high arsenic content in an onsite well. A new well is under construction. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Everyone in California — and everywhere else, for that matter — deserves clean drinking water.

But relying on charity to upgrade failing water systems in low-income California communities is not the way to meet a basic human need.

Yet that’s essentially what state Sen. Bill Monning is proposing in SB 845. The bill would require water purveyors throughout the state to offer their customers the “opportunity” to pay a monthly fee of 95 cents per household.

The money would go toward improving water systems in 300 communities where the water is undrinkable due to nitrates, arsenic and other contamination often linked to ag runoff. (One of those contaminated wells serves Pleasant Valley Elementary School outside San Miguel, though work is underway on a new well that should be ready by the end of the year.)

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A companion bill, SB 844, would impose a mandatory tax on farms and dairies. Together, the two sources of revenue would generate an estimated $140 million per year.

While $12 per year is not an onerous donation to this worthy cause, this is a matter of principle.

If the state is successful this time, what’s next?

Start a GoFundMe account to fix potholes? Sponsor telethons to build schools and fire stations and sewer plants?

It’s one thing for government to look to donations to help buy library books and playground equipment. But necessities like water, sewer and public safety should have a more stable funding source — even if that means raising taxes.

That’s the route the state originally considered. A small water tax was proposed initially, but then politicians got jittery.

Voters already were upset about the 12-cent-per-gallon gas tax, which is up for repeal, and lawmakers didn’t want to press their luck by passing a water tax.

Instead, Monning’s bill proposes a work-around that appeals to our better angels — in much the same way that supermarkets and movie theaters and big box stores often ask us if we want to make a donation to this or that good cause.

Except Monning proposes to do it differently. Instead of asking us whether we want to participate, he proposes the 95-cent fee automatically be added to customers’ bills, unless they choose to opt out. (To further complicate matters, water customers also could choose to donate a different amount.)

That’s sneaky. How many people actually read the inserts that come with their bills, or even pay attention to the amount of their bill unless it’s unusually high?

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On top of that, this would not be a one-and-done opt out; customers who don’t want to contribute would have to opt out every year.

No wonder it’s estimated that only 29 percent of customers would opt out; many customers would probably be oblivious to what’s happening.

Also, what about the water purveyors that would be stuck changing their billing systems?

In a Viewpoint written for the Sacramento Bee, a former chairman of the state Water Resources Control Board warned that the voluntary fee would be costly and inefficient to administer: “... it would require more than 3,000 local water systems to change their billing systems and hire new employees to manage collection of the contributions, all at significant expense.”

As an alternative, he suggests adding water system improvements to the list of causes Californians can donate to on their state income tax form.

But supporters of the voluntary fee point out that because there are so many causes competing for attention on the state income tax form, that’s not likely to bring in much money for clean water.

And again, that would be relying on charity to support a basic human need.

Sen. Monning’s bill has yet to make it out of committee, and with the legislative session winding down, it could be a moot point for now, though Monning told us he won’t give up.

“The problem will still be there, and I’ll remain committed to find a pathway to finding a solution. It’s a public health crisis, and it’s under-reported.”

We don’t disagree. But something is very wrong when the state of California — the fifth largest economy in the world — has to rely on charitable contributions to ensure all its citizens have clean water to drink.

The Legislature should either find the money in the budget — or find the political courage to pass a tax.