The fires now touch too many of us to be ignored. People who live in the hills are nervous, while suburbs are devastated by fires unimaginable, therefore not prepared for. Country people are thinking about how to protect their lives and the lives of their neighbors.
And then, as discussed in the articles below, is the question: who should pay for the fires.
PG&E's culpability in rural wildfires has been discussed by some for a quarter century that I know of, because it was at least 25 years ago that I sat down with two employees of PG&E, and listened to a convincing argument of how urban residents were subsidizing electrical utility connections in a region full of foothill ranchettes at the ends of long driveways. Snow brought these long electrical lines down in winter and, as the company was shedding its solid commitment to community service in favor of its new, aggressively corporate relations with its customers, it wasn't paying as much attention as it had to keeping lines away from foliage.
North Santa Rosa learned about that last summer. PG&E has just concluded a $!.7-million lobbying campaign in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Legislature to write new laws to ease its liability.
But, at the second article suggests, the arrogance of one-party power and age-old politicians' greed for cash and high living may weaken the Legislature's will next year.
Rather than listening to PG&E's absurdly wealthy lobbyists, legislators should consider talking to the people who actually fight these fires and live in this danger zone. Loggers also know a great deal about fire.
Plan to lessen PG&E’s liability for wildfires is dead for the year, lawmaker says
California state lawmakers are ending efforts to reduce PG&E’s legal liability for wildfires, rejecting Gov. Jerry Brown’s request to create a new court standard for determining fault after utility equipment sparks blazes.
After weeks of tense hearings and criticism from lawmakers in both political parties, Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said the Legislature is shifting focus to proposals that would improve forest health and address actions utilities must take to prevent fires.
“I can officially say inverse condemnation is off the table,” said Dodd, the co-chair of a legislative committee convened to examine wildfire laws this year. “We felt we could still accomplish all our goals without it.”
The controversial idea dominated discussions about wildfires in the Legislature long before Brown began disseminating his plan last month.
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Top PG&E executives repeatedly called California’s “strict liability” standard an outlier among other states and said it threatens the San Francisco-based utility giant’s financial health. The company spent $1.7 million lobbying lawmakers to change the law from April through June, surpassing the total amount it dished out to influence legislators during all of 2017.
The law says a utility is automatically responsible for property damages if its equipment causes a fire, regardless of whether investigators prove the company behaved negligently.
Brown’s plan would have altered wildfire liability laws with a new set of directives instructing the court to determine whether the utility acted reasonably and in compliance with fire mitigation plans, such as trimming trees and branches around power lines, among other factors in civil liability cases
Opponents of the plan quickly labeled it a bailout for PG&E, which experts say could ultimately face as much as $15 billion in liability damages from multiple fires in 2017 that devastated Santa Rosa and other parts of Northern California’s Wine Country.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has linked PG&E’s equipment to 15 of the wildfires that scorched Northern California last year. The results of Cal Fire’s investigation into the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, the most deadly and damaging of the October blazes, have not been announced.
Brown’s plan did not address liability for the 2017 blazes, but would have been retroactive to the beginning of 2018. Another proposal, Assembly Bill 33, would allow the state to issue bonds paid off by ratepayers to cover wildfire property damage claims from last year.
Changes to the existing liability law could have shifted the financial burden for blazes onto homeowners’ insurance companies, potentially driving up premiums across California.
A coalition of insurance trade groups, which includes the Personal Insurance Federation of California and the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, applauded the Legislature’s decision.
“The Conference Committee’s prioritization on preventing fires that would destroy our homes, businesses and forests will help California for decades,” the trade associations said in a statement.
Republicans and Democrats openly denounced the proposed changes to liability law during a series of legislative hearings that stretched on for weeks. Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates called for the Legislature last week to continue the discussions at a later time, signaling her caucus would not approve the plan.
PG&E met with legislative leaders Friday and called off their request to alter the strict liability standard this year after it became clear that the proposal lacked the necessary votes. Discussions continue over potential changes to regulatory frameworks to determine when utilities can recoup costs from ratepayers, must place the burden on shareholders, or use other options to pay off damages. Dodd said other parts of Brown’s legislative proposal also remain under consideration.
“We have to have strong financially stable utilities or their bond rating goes down, their interest rates go up and that all gets passed to ratepayers,” Dodd said.
This is what arrogance in power looks like at the California Capitol
The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board
Since returning for the final month of the legislative session, too many Democrats have displayed why some Californians are concerned about one-party domination of the state Capitol.
Let us count the ways.
Despite hideously long lines at DMV offices, the Democratic-controlled Legislature has let the agency off the hook so far, shielding it from an audit to find out what has gone wrong. By not voting, three Senate Democrats blocked the audit from being approved by a legislative committee.
On that very same day, legislators showered the DMV with more money — $16.6 million to hire 230 more employees. Another $26 million request for 400 workers is under consideration. If an agency gets more resources without more oversight, that’s a recipe for waste or worse.
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Then there’s the legislation on special interest money. Last week, Democratic leaders pushed a bill through committee that critics rightly warn will mean more cash flowing into legislative campaigns.
Party caucus leaders in the Senate and Assembly would control the campaign money through political committees that could accept as much as $36,500 from a single donor (far more than the $4,400 cap on contributions to candidates), and also could receive and spend unlimited donations for “independent” expenditures for or against candidates. Because Assembly Bill 84 would put these committees on par with state parties, even the California Democratic party opposes it.
And then there’s the case of Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat who represents constituents who lost homes and businesses in last October’s deadly wine country wildfires. He is all over the issue, including as co-chairman of the joint Committee on Wildfire Preparedness and Response and author of Senate Bill 901, which will be the vehicle for any plan the Legislature passes.
PG&E has been lobbying aggressively to change state law to cut its liability for wildfire damages, warning of bankruptcy and threatening huge rate hikes for its customers if it doesn’t get its way.
So some people noticed when Dodd went straight from a committee meeting last week to a re-election fund-raiser that was attended by lobbyists for both sides, including PG&E. The “Pour and Pair” event at Downtown & Vine, a bar across the street from the Capitol, had a “suggested contribution” of $1,500 to $4,400. Some critics even suggested that Dodd rushed witnesses’ testimony to get to the fundraiser on time.
“The conference committee has provided ample time for all parties and the public to be heard and continues to solicit public input,” his office said in a statement. “Out of respect for the public’s time and the need to have discussion on all relevant issues, Sen. Dodd always runs efficient meetings. Any assertion otherwise is ludicrous.”
The fundraiser was scheduled well in advance. Still, it’s not a good look.
Coincidentally, or not, in the midst of this controversy, Dodd took it upon himself to announce Saturday that the utility liability changes sought by PG&E were off the table this session.
In isolation, these incidents might not seem that bad. But taken together, they do suggest arrogance in power. Keep adding examples and who knows? Maybe voters will take some of that power away.