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Anthony Rendon arrived feeling a little punchy. At 51, the speaker of the California Assembly is adjusting to life as a new dad—and his 3-month-old baby hadn’t slept well the night before.

“She was up at 1:30, 3, 4:30. And then once she woke up at 4:30, she didn’t fall asleep until 6,” Rendon said. “So that’s my life.”

The Los Angeles politician—sporting a black hoodie and Converse high tops as he sat for an interview in his district office—assumed one of California’s most-powerful roles in the spring of 2016. As the Assembly’s Democratic leader, he’s negotiated $200 billion state budgets with two Senate leaders and two governors. He’s overseen a political operation that resulted in Democrats winning a historically huge majority of more than 75 percent.

And yet around the Capitol, he’s probably best known for his low profile, rarely calling press conferences and opting not to author any bills so his members can share the spotlight. His style—at turns cerebral and self-deprecating—is unusual in a statehouse that attracts its share of showboats.

So it was with a certain understatement, as well as exhaustion, that Rendon, clutching a cup of coffee, shared his expectations for 2020—in the Capitol, at the ballot and for his family. Here are condensed highlights from our December interview.

So who gives a better baby present, Gavin Newsom or Jerry Brown?

I like Jerry Brown very much. And I’m not asking that he send a present, but he didn’t. Gavin Newsom and his wife sent a very nice gift. … It was a onesie. … It says “One California” or something. Get it? It’s a play on words. It’s a onesie. It’s very cute. And I meant to take a picture of her in it and send it to him, but I haven’t done that. I’m glad you reminded me.

You’re the first speaker in a while to have a young family. Recent legislative leaders either didn’t have children or had much older children. Do you think having a baby is going to impact your ability to do such a demanding job?

It impacts all aspects of my life. I think I’ll have to make adjustments, for sure. … Being speaker is a demanding job. And I’m sure being a parent is a demanding job as well. So something will have to give.

March of 2020 will mark four years that you’ve been assembly speaker. And if you remain speaker until the end of the legislative session—

That’s ominous.

… You’ll become the longest-serving speaker since Willie Brown. So, any fears of restless colleagues who might mount a challenge?

It’s not something that’s on my mind right now. I haven’t heard any rumblings. 

Your caucus grew a lot in 2018 because of the seats you successfully flipped. Then it got even bigger when GOP Assemblyman Brian Maienschein switched parties. What was that like to have a Republican in your caucus? Is it as easy as just switching jerseys and joining your team, or is there any awkwardness in having a former opponent as a colleague?

It probably sounds ludicrous … but I was amazed how seamless it was. When Brian announced that he was switching, I had a meeting with the caucus and said, “Hey, this is what he wants to do, and how do you guys feel about it?” And I almost felt like I was overpreparing them, because they were all like, “Cool.” (Even as a Republican) Brian voted with us so often.

More recently, local Assemblyman Chad Mayes left the Republican Party as well. He’s now registered with no party preference. But if he wanted to caucus with the Democrats, would you allow it?

I don’t know. I’d probably have to ask the caucus how they felt about it. He doesn’t seem to want to. I saw him (a few days ago). He feels pretty liberated to not be a member of a party. … I don’t think he wants to become a Democrat, and I don’t think he wants to caucus with us. I don’t think he wants to caucus with Republicans (either).

How are you feeling about your Assembly races in 2020? Do you think you can hold your 61-seat mega-majority?

I have mixed feelings about it. The weather forecast is complicated. On the one hand, there’s a lot of very anti-Republican sentiment. … With Donald Trump on the ballot, you have to think that we’re going to do very well. That being said, we also know that there is very much an anti-incumbent tendency out there, and we just have more incumbents than they do. People are very angry around the issue of housing affordability and homelessness. We see that polling everywhere, in every district throughout the state. So I don’t think we can say, “Democrat X is running against Donald Trump” or “running against a Republican.” We have to tell a story about what we’ve done. … Just railing against Donald Trump, I don’t think that’s fair to Californians to do that.

Why?

I’m really impressed with the work that we’ve done … and also because … we have candidates who have incredible qualifications and have had incredible life experiences. You take someone like Thu-Ha Nguyen (challenging GOP Assemblyman Tyler Diep) in Orange County, who’s a cancer researcher, and a mom, and a council member. And I think to reduce all of that to just, “She’s battling Donald Trump,” I think is overly simplistic. And it’s also very—it’s a short horizon. I mean, Donald Trump will be gone someday, and the party needs to stand for something. And we will.

So how do you feel about Gavin Newsom’s approach? He’s been very much framing himself as the leader of the resistance and fighting Trump all the time. How do you feel about that?

That works for him. A lot of what he does is about the resources from the federal government, and that’s a different dynamic. It’s not what I do. It’s not what I’m interested in. But I get why he does it. … Whether it’s high speed rail funds or water—that’s very real for (him).

How do you feel about the landscape for the Democratic presidential nomination?

I haven’t been following it all that closely. … I want to be supportive of a Democrat who could beat Donald Trump.

You were a Kamala Harris supporter early on. So with her out of the race, have you picked a candidate you’re going to endorse?

No … I don’t know if I will. I might. I’ve had Mr. Steyer call me, and the South Bend mayor called me. (Rendon turned to his staff member and asked to be reminded of his name.)

A lot of the policies the Democratic candidates are proposing are things that California is already doing to some degree—like $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization, carbon pricing and paid family leave. Do you think that the nation wants to be more like California?

The California label is probably not a good thing in a lot of parts of the country for whatever reason. But I think in terms of policy, the state certainly has a story to tell. So I’m not surprised that some of our ideas are being put up there as models to follow. … We’re proud of our economy, and we’re proud of the $15 minimum wage, and all the stuff we’ve done on the environment. And at the same time, how many tens of thousands of people go to sleep every night in this state without a home? And we have long-lasting water problems, quality and supply. We have too many people in prison. So I think it’s important for us as Democrats to be honest. And it is very difficult to do that in election years.

On criminal-justice issues, California has been on a long course of reversing tough-on-crime policies of the past. Do you think the state has gone too far in any way? Or if you think we haven’t gone far enough, what’s left to do?

In our House, we passed the (parolee right to) vote bill. (ACA 6 would allow parolees to vote after they complete their prison sentences, if voters approve.) I’d like to see that get on the ballot and have Californians take a look at that. What we ask for in our society is for people who’ve done bad things to do their time and then become engaged citizens. And as long as you’re not allowing that, then you’re not living up to your principles.

A few months ago, my colleague Dan Morain wrote about the murder your brother-in-law John Lam was an accomplice to 16 years ago. Jerry Brown reduced his sentence, and Gavin Newsom made a final call allowing his release. Have you had any insights on criminal justice issues from this experience in your family?

I have. He was released on Oct. 10th. He’s in transitional housing. And you know, my wife and I are very fortunate. We have resources at our disposal. I’ve been on paternity leave. My wife is self-employed, so we have a lot of time that we can spend with him, and we take him out a lot. … When I pick him up, I sometimes look at the other guys at the home and wonder to what extent they don’t have those things, and what that means for them moving forward. So in the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about the things that we do or don’t do after (someone is released from prison) and the hurdles that people have. That is something that I’ve taken away from the experience.

Looking ahead, what are your priorities for 2020?

No surprise to you or anybody, wildfires and housing affordability/homelessness issues are on everyone’s mind—this sort of unresolved, you know, enigma, that is PG&E and where that goes moving forward.

So on wildfire, what can you do?

It’s a very good question. People (in Northern California) are constantly talking about insurance issues. 

What about on homelessness?

A lot of what we want to do is relating to oversight of the money and the opportunities that we’ve given to local governments. … It’s incumbent upon cities to do something, and it’s incumbent upon us to provide oversight.

Do you anticipate the Legislature responding to pressure from initiatives that are in the process of qualifying for the ballot? Like the challenge from Uber and Lyft on AB 5, the new California law that treats more contract workers as employees—would you pass a law to keep that off the ballot?

I don’t believe we would. I felt as though we were doing a tremendous favor to a lot of people by even addressing that. We could have easily just let it go and let the court ruling stand. I have no interest in getting involved in that. I think we’ve been quite good to those people.

A few years ago, there was a push to do a constitutional amendment asking voters to repeal the Proposition 209 ban (from 1996) on affirmative action. Given the 2020 electorate, do you want that to be something the Legislature does, give that to the voters this year?

I’m glad you brought that up. … I would like to see 209 repealed. That being said, if we are going to get something on the ballot, and get it passed in November, from a political standpoint, it almost seems too late. You have to raise a lot of money. You have to have your ducks lined up. And I haven’t seen that from any of the activist groups that have been talking about that. It’s disappointing that people sometimes seem to want to jam things on the ballot. Good intentions, but (they) don’t go through the very simple political steps of raising money and having a proper coalition to get something passed by voters.

What about a repeal of the death penalty? Would you want to see the Legislature put that on the ballot for the people?

I’ve been opposed to the death penalty for a long time. … But as long as it’s not being carried out (because Newsom halted executions by executive order), there doesn’t seem to be a rush.

Anything you hope will go differently this year in working with Gov. Newsom?

There were some bumps in the road with Gavin early on. At the time, it was hard to contextualize. It was just irritating. But when you think about it, yeah, it makes sense: It’s a whole new team, whole new relationships. So I think things will get better. And I don’t know that we necessarily need to tweak any individual thing. I think it’s just learning people’s tendencies and learning how people like to communicate

One last question: How do you feel about having another Anthony Rendon in L.A.? (A Major League Baseball player by the same name recently left the Washington Nationals for the Los Angeles Angels.)

It’s a lot. After my wife and I had a baby, our first date with a baby sitter was the night he hit a big homerun in Game 6 of the World Series. And I got 69 texts … That includes people who sent texts saying, “Oh, aren’t you glad I’m not sending you another Anthony Rendon text?” That’s included in that total. Just for the record.

What were most of the texts saying?

“Oh, you hit a home run tonight! Ha ha ha.” Oh, so clever. I’ve never heard that one before. I’ve literally been following this guy since he was Freshman of the Year at Rice University. I know he exists. I don’t need another freakin’ person to tell me that he exists.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

On this week's tax-return-releasing weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips welcomes back Flamey the Fire Safety Rhino; Red Meat has an idea for a movie; This Modern World gets Trump's thoughts on that perfect phone call; Jen Sorenson ponders Bill Barr's attack on the non-devout; and The K Chronicles examines the early dissent over primate change.

Published in Comics

Don’t be fooled by the precipitation, the snowpack and the wildflowers. When winter ends, it’s unlikely that California’s iconic landscape will sustain the moisture to withstand the scorching summer and fall.

California has yet to recover from the 5-year drought that began in 2012. For four years, record wildfires have ravaged the state, including the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma in 2017, and the Camp Fire last year that wiped out the town of Paradise in Butte County. The 2019 wildfire season officially kicks off in mid-May, but California’s wildfire season is essentially year-round now.

So what happens when the next big wildfire hits?

State fire officials are already amassing new aircraft that can drop thousands of gallons of bright red flame retardant. Emergency responders are pre-positioning fire crews in high-threat areas even before a fire starts. State officials will no longer second guess the use of wireless emergency alerts that grab people’s attention by making smartphones vibrate and squawk.

The major investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—now plan to shut off power, even where fire risk is minimal, during red-flag weather warnings. It’s considered a public-safety measure of last resort, because a power outage can cut off internet access and make communication difficult for hospitals, firefighters and emergency personnel.

The utilities also plan to fireproof California’s electricity grid, a result of their equipment being implicated in so many recent disasters. That includes clearing brush and trees away from transmission lines, replacing wooden poles with metal ones, and using drones and weather monitoring stations to gauge danger via wind and smoke patterns.

Yet even these expensive precautions may not ward off the next towering inferno, say fire officials.

“I think we are better prepared,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “The real question is whether or not that’s enough.”


‘A Sense of Urgency’

Part of the problem is that California has been caught off guard by the new climate-driven fire seasons, amplified by longer hot summers and extended droughts. Seven of the 10 most destructive wildfires in state history have happened in the last five years.

“The fires are behaving so much differently than they have before,” Huston said, noting the new wildfires are “virtually impossible to fight” as they leap mountains and gallop for miles, creating their own weather systems. “You couldn’t have predicted this based on past fire.”

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker told state lawmakers on Jan. 30 that climate-change-driven wildfires are happening much faster than anyone predicted. But for the state regulatory agency to enforce safety at the state’s eight investor-owned utilities, Picker said, he would need 15,000 to 20,000 new staff to police every electricity pole and wire. The agency has, roughly, a 1,300-member staff.

The CPUC regulates not only privately owned utilities from telecom to water, but also rail-crossing safety, limos and ride sharing. Historically, Picker’s role has been more like that of an administrative judge than a police chief.

“If you want to get the Legislature to allow me to be a total dictator, and make decisions overnight, I’m happy,” Picker elaborated to reporters afterward. “That’s not what our job is. We are like a technical court. People have to have their day in court. It’s not a fast process. Have you been in a court proceeding that took one day?”

But his answer on the challenges of enforcement frustrated lawmakers, on whom political pressure has mounted with every disaster. The CPUC is not known for swiftness. It took nine years to issue a statewide fire-threat map after Southern California fires, caused by Santa Ana winds whipping power lines, prompted commissioners in 2009 to demand one. It has laid out a two-month schedule just for reviewing fire-prevention plans utilities must submit under recent and hard-fought wildfire safety legislation.

After Picker’s testimony, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood, a forensic dentist who represents fire-ravaged Santa Rosa, took to Twitter.

“I want to hear a sense of urgency,” he wrote. “We don’t have time for a standard bureaucratic approach.”


Amassing ‘More Tools’

Ultimately, the fire challenge involves painful long-term decisions such as how to reconcile the acute demand for California housing with the suddenly limited supply of land that isn’t in a high-risk fire zone.

Short-term, Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa is among those who hope incremental improvements might make a difference. He is proposing the commission work with Cal Fire and the Office of Emergency Services to improve coordination for turning off power in red-flag weather, alerting residents to evacuate and better targeting crews to fight fires. His Senate Bill 209 would establish an official, statewide California wildfire warning center.

“It would give us more tools in trying to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Dodd said.

Emergency officials also are studying past fires, and preparing. Survivors of the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties complained they had little or no warning when the flames flared up at night under dry windy conditions. Local officials opted against sending out a mass alert for fear of causing panic or hindering emergency responders.

“Everybody I talk to in our neighborhood pretty much either had family call or a neighbor knock on the door. I don’t know of anyone that got an emergency alert,” said Patrick McCallum, a higher education lobbyist who barely escaped his Santa Rosa home with his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki. “Worse, there were police and fire engines running around, but they were not allowed to put their alarms on.”

In coming weeks, the state is expected to issue clearer guidance to all 58 counties for issuing alerts and warnings to the public across multiple platforms. The new thinking is to over-communicate, rather than rely on the alerts of the 1980s sent over television and radio or ringing landlines.

“It is something people depend on to make decisions in a crisis,” OES’ Huston said.

The state also believes pushing out wireless emergency alerts on smartphones similar to an Amber Alert can now be done effectively without creating chaos. This simple weather warning was sent out to seven counties encompassing 22 million people in Southern California in December 2017 as a precaution after authorities saw dry windy conditions similar to the wine country fire two months earlier:

“Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger. Stay Alert. Listen to authorities.”

This fire season, Californians may see it again.


A Firefighting Air Force

Meanwhile, Cal Fire is beefing up its capabilities. Rather than waiting to respond to a wildfire, emergency personnel have shifted to pre-positioning strike teams before a fire even starts.

The switch comes at a price; Cal Fire’s expenses now already routinely exceed its budget. Last year’s fire spending set a new record, and the political climate has made the outlays difficult to question.

“That’s expensive, because you’re paying the same amount of money for firefighters whether they’re fighting a fire or sitting waiting for a fire to start,” Huston said. “But you have to weigh that against the potential for loss and the expense of a disaster.”

The state already boasts a formidable firefighting air force, featuring S-2T air tankers that dump 1,200 gallons of flame retardant and Huey helicopters for lifting fire crews in and out of steep terrain.

This spring, the Hueys will start to be replaced by more modern Black Hawks, the Army’s frontline utility helicopter. The first one is expected to be ready in May, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

And over the next two years, Cal Fire will add seven C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Those will be retrofitted to carry between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of flame retardant.

“California will have one of, if not the largest, firefighting air forces in the world,” McLean said.


What About the Utilities?

At ground zero in much of the state are California’s investor-owned utilities and their spark-prone equipment. PG&E has vowed to expand power shut-off territory to as many as 5.4 million customers, up from 570,000 today. SCE is focused on better weather monitoring, adding 62 high-definition cameras and 350 micro weather stations as part of a broader $582 million safety plan.

And SDG&E, which has been most aggressive with more than $1 billion in safety upgrades, will continue to replace wood poles with steel poles, hire a helitanker on standby year-round, and contract with firefighters especially trained to put out electrical fires.

Yet there’s no statewide standard for deciding when the power should be shut off. Instead, participating utilities base decisions on temperature, wind, humidity and other factors. SDG&E has been lauded for its proactive use of public safety power shutoffs.

PG&E’s rollout has been less reassuring.

Two days before the most destructive wildfire in California history ignited, 62,000 PG&E customers in eight counties, including Butte, were warned that their power could be turned off as a precautionary measure. This was sent at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 6: This is an important safety alert from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Extreme weather conditions and high fire-danger are forecasted in Butte County. These conditions may cause power outages in the area of your address. To protect public safety, PG&E may also temporarily turn off power in your neighborhood or community. If there is an outage, we will work to restore service as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Cal Fire reports the Camp Fire ignited around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8.

PG&E never shut off power. In fact, the utility went on to issue cancellation notifications hours after the deadly blaze started. Sent at 2 p.m. on Nov. 8: “This is an important safety update from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Weather conditions have improved in your area, and we are not planning to turn off electricity for safety in the area of your address.”

PG&E wouldn’t comment on its decision. The California Public Utilities Commission would say only that it is investigating when asked if the state was looking at why the utility didn’t initiate a blackout.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

As California lawmakers struggled to address an apparent new normal of epic wildfires, there was an inescapable subtext: Climate change is going to be staggeringly expensive, and virtually every Californian is going to have to pay for it.

In the final week of August—just before the Legislature agreed to spend $200 million on tree clearance and let utilities pass on to customers the multi-billion-dollar costs of just one year’s fire damage—the state released a sobering report detailing the broader costs Californians face as the planet grows warmer.

As horrendous as the wildfire situation is, the report made clear that it’s just one line item on a colossal ledger: It could soon cost us $200 million a year in increased energy bills to keep homes air conditioned; $3 billion from the effects of a long drought; and $18 billion to replace buildings inundated by rising seas, just to cite a few projections—not to mention the loss of life from killer heat waves, which could add more than 11,000 heat-related deaths per year by 2050 in California, and carry an estimated $50 billion annual price tag.

“Without adaptation, the economic impacts of climate change will be very costly,” warned the Climate Change Assessment report from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning and Research, noting that the buildup of manmade greenhouse gases has already warmed California by up to 2 degrees since 1900. That bump, the assessment added, could rise to nearly 9 degrees by the century’s end.

And Californians are being hit with a double-whammy because fighting and preparing for climate change also costs money, and the Golden State has embraced an ambitious agenda to combat global warming. For example, Californians pay more for gas in part because of the state’s low-carbon fuel requirement and the cap-and-trade system that makes polluters pay for their greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are right now disproportionately bearing the brunt of both some of the impacts (of climate change) and trying to mitigate it ourselves,” said Solomon Hsiang, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, who has researched the cost of climate change.

As that has sunk in, the reaction has been a mix of pragmatism, panic and political action.

As wildfires laid siege to the state and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of Californians earlier this summer, Brown warned that “over a decade, there will be more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it, more adaptation and more prevention.”

At the time, California had blown through a quarter of the state’s $443 million emergency wildfire fund; in the devastating 4 1/2 weeks since, the fund has been nearly wiped out.

“All that is the new normal we will have to face,” the governor said.

That realization swept through the Capitol again this week, as lawmakers approved a bill to require that all electricity in California come from renewable sources such as solar and wind by the end of 2045.

Senate Bill 100 was hailed as bold move away from climate-damaging fossil fuels—but legislative critics pointed out that California already has both the nation’s highest poverty rate and the highest per-kilowatt cost for electricity.

“I guarantee you: We pass this, and rates are going to go up,” Assembly Republican leader Brian Dahle said during a passionate floor debate. “Californians cannot afford it.”

Sen. Kevin de León, the Los Angeles Democrat carrying the bill for 100 percent renewable electricity, dismissed cost concerns as nothing more than the rhetoric of naysayers “who try to undermine our clean-energy climate goals.” The cost of solar power has already dropped significantly and will likely continue to come down further, he said, in the years leading up to the 100 percent renewable requirement. And, his supporters argued, there is also a cost to not fighting climate change—even more fires and floods than would otherwise occur.

Noel Perry, a founder of Next 10, a group that researches environmental and economic policy, says the benefits of California’s climate policies outweigh the costs, because California can demonstrate to the rest of the world what’s possible to fight global warming while expanding the economy with clean technology investments. California’s economy, the world’s fifth-largest, has grown by 16 percent in the last decade while emissions fell by 11 percent, according to a new report from his group.

“In certain instances, it will involve increased costs for some consumers and businesses. But because of how huge the climate change challenge is, we need to address it,” Perry said.

In some cases, the increased costs for fuel and electricity are more directly offset by efficiency standards for cars and appliances meant to help Californians consume less energy. For example, a recent mandate requiring solar panels on new homes in 2020 will likely add $10,000 to the price of a house, but could save homeowners more than $16,000 in energy bills.

In any event, climate costs are no longer abstract. Lawmakers have spent much of this year deep in the political nitty-gritty of who should pay how much for which climate-fueled disaster. The total cost of last year’s catastrophic wildfires still isn’t fully tallied, for example, but some estimates put it over $10 billion, and lawmakers have spent much of the year debating how much of that should be paid by taxptubbsayers, utility companies or their industrial and residential ratepayers.

Under California’s liability law, utilities are liable for damages from any fires sparked by their power lines, even if they weren’t negligent. Cal Fire alleges that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment was involved in 16 of last year’s fires, and that in 11 of those, the company violated state codes that require keeping trees and shrubs away from power lines. The company says it met the state’s standards. Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the Tubbs Fire, the deadliest of last year’s blazes.

The utilities lobbied unsuccessfully this year to change the liability law. But they scored a partial win late Friday night as the Legislature OK'd a plan the wildfire committee advanced allowing utilities to issue bonds to cover damages from the 2017 fires and pass the cost onto their customers—even if the company is found negligent.

Senate Bill 901 would require a review of the companies’ finances before any surcharge is placed on ratepayers, and lawmakers supporting the plan said it would result in modest new charges—roughly $26 per year for residential ratepayers if the companies paid off $5 billion over 20 years. The alternative, they said, was the possibility that the company could go bankrupt, costing customers even more.

Consumer advocates blasted it as a “bailout” for PG&E; lobbyists for industries that use a lot of power said the plan would unfairly burden customers.

Meanwhile, the bill also calls for creation of a new Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery that would decide whether utilities can charge customers for fires in 2018 and beyond, and recommend potential changes to state law “that would ensure equitable distribution of costs among affected parties.”

Translation: Expect a lot more debate in the coming years over who will pay for damages from California disasters exacerbated by climate change.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Between last year’s deadly wildfires and this summer’s fatal blazes, utilities and insurers with a huge stake in fires’ aftermath have poured more than $3.2 million into California campaign donations, and another $5.2 million into lobbying at the state Capitol—a big spike.

Also fiercely lobbying on wildfire bills: plaintiffs attorneys, local governments and electrical worker unions.

Now, in the final weeks of the Legislature’s session, lawmakers on a special wildfire committee are considering proposals to beef up safety of the electrical system and change liability laws. CALmatters reviewed new lobbying and campaign finance reports covering the first six months of the year. The takeaways:

Lobbying is up—by a lot: The state’s three big electric utilities together more than doubled their spending on lobbying during the first half of this year, compared with the same period last year. The increase was driven largely by Pacific Gas and Electric, which spent $2.2 million on lobbying this year—triple what it spent in the first half of 2017.

Between April and June this year, PG&E reported spending $1.1 million specifically lobbying on wildfire legislation.

“This is really the biggest issue facing our company today,” said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo, adding that PG&E pays for lobbying expenses with shareholder funds, not money from customers.

At issue: Who should be responsible for and pay for fire damages? Under existing law, utilities are liable if fires are traced to their equipment—even if there’s no negligence. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed changing the law to relieve utilities of some liability—protection they desperately want.

Edison, which provides power to much of Southern California, including much of the Coachella Valley, spent $1.3 million lobbying in the first half of this year—double what it spent last year.

Insurance companies are the utilities’ main adversary in this: If utilities become less liable, insurers will have to bear more of the costs from disasters. Insurance trade associations increased their spending on lobbying in the state Capitol by 51 percent this year over last.

There’s a whole lotta wining and dining going on: Most of the money utilities and insurance companies spent on lobbying went to lobbyists, lawyers and publicity campaigns. But the total also includes a lot of cocktails and steaks the companies bought for government officials they are trying to influence—nearly $69,000 worth of goodies for the first half of this year.

PG&E treated GOP Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres and six of his staff members to a San Francisco Giants game in May. In July, Cannella was appointed to the committee crafting wildfire legislation. He declined to comment for this story.

Overall, PG&E spent more than $3,000 entertaining government officials, including a breakfast in February for Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who is co-chair of the wildfire committee, and a lunch in June for Todd Derum, chief of the Sonoma division of Cal Fire, the agency investigating last year’s fires. Cal Fire has said PG&E’s equipment was involved in 16 fires, and that in 11 of those, the company violated state safety codes. Cal Fire has not yet completed its investigation of the deadliest blaze, known as the Tubbs Fire.

Edison spent more than $45,000 entertaining officials. That included a $12,000 reception in January attended by more than 100 legislators and staff members, and a dinner in March at a Los Angeles steakhouse for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor.

The Personal Insurance Federation of California spent $14,300 entertaining lawmakers and their staff, including an $8,500 reception in March and a $4,000 soiree at a Sacramento nightclub in April. In addition, the trade association treated officials to microbrews, sushi dinners and other goodies, such as a $53 cake for an assemblywoman’s chief of staff.

Rex Frazier, the Personal Insurance Federation lobbyist, said government decisions have a huge impact on the insurance business because it is so highly regulated. “With that,” he said, “comes relationship-building with legislators.”

The victims advocacy group is funded almost entirely by lawyers: Fire victims are lobbying to preserve liability laws and pass new rules that could help prevent future wildfires. Their advocacy group Up From the Ashes is represented by a lobbyist who lost his Santa Rosa home in the fires. The group blames PG&E and Edison for not doing enough to prevent last year’s disasters, some of which were sparked by power lines too close to branches and brush.

Up From the Ashes spent about $564,000 lobbying between April and June, with about $55,000 going to a lobbying firm and the rest to a publicity campaign. Where did the money come from? Essentially, law firms involved in lawsuits against utilities.

 “We appreciate their funding so we can have a voice,” said Patrick McCallum, the lobbyist for Up From the Ashes, which represents about 600 homeowners, businesses and local governments that lost property in last year’s fires.

It’s a bipartisan love affair: The industries involved in the fight over wildfire legislation aren’t playing favorites: They’ve showered dozens of Republican and Democratic legislators with large campaign contributions and pour huge sums into committees to elect politicians from both parties.

Edison gave $1.1 million to California political campaigns this year, including $250,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party. It also gave $25,000 each to a GOP group called California Trailblazers and the Democratic campaign fighting a senator’s recall. In advance of the June primary, Edison gave $29,200 each to Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, Democratic rivals in the gubernatorial race.

PG&E has given more than $900,000 in political donations this year, including $175,000 to the California Democratic Party and $110,000 to the California Republican Party. It’s also given $25,000 to a committee that supports moderate Republicans and $40,000 to one that supports moderate Democrats.

In addition, PG&E gave $150,000 to a campaign supporting Newsom for governor, and paid nearly $400,000 to a political consulting firm that ran Brown’s campaign for governor and is helping with Newsom’s.

The Farmers insurance company gave $96,500 to the state GOP and $10,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the Newsom campaign.

One lawmaker doesn’t want PG&E’s money: On June 4, PG&E sent $1,000 to the re-election campaign for Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood. On June 30, he returned the money.

Wood declined to comment on why he sent back the PG&E money, instead saying through a spokeswoman that he did not solicit the donation.

But here’s a clue: He represents parts of Santa Rosa devastated by last year’s fires. Now he sits on the wildfire committee, where he’s questioning whether the Legislature should change liability laws before Cal Fire completes its investigations.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Over three months in 2016, the Soberanes fire burned 132,127 acres of central California’s coast, blazing through dry swaths of dense chaparral, mixed hardwood timber and redwoods. Costing $260 million to suppress, it became the most expensive fire in the country’s history. It wasn’t caused by lightning, which is relatively scarce in that part of the country—but by an illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park.

Human-caused climate change has meant more, and bigger, wildfires throughout the country. But as astute pyrologist Bruce Springsteen once wrote, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” According to new wildfire research, the source of that spark is, more often than not, a person.

What’s more, due to these human-caused ignitions, the country’s conflagrations have grown significantly larger and more frequent, while the overall fire season has tripled in length.

Jennifer Balch, assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder, quantified just how significant humans’ role in providing that spark is. Balch and her colleagues investigated federal, state and local records provided by the Forest Service of wildfires on public and private lands from 1992 to 2012. They determined that 84 percent of the 1.5 million wildfires that burned nationally over those two decades were lit by humans, not including controlled burns intentionally lit for fire management. In total, humans started more than 1.2 million fires.

Even in parts of the country where lightning strikes cause the most fires—such as the Intermountain West—humans have increased the number, size and length of the season for wildfires overall.

By mapping the Forest Service data, Balch’s team found that fires primarily ignite in areas of human-wildland interface: roads, urban encroachment into wild spaces and the edges of agricultural fields. Areas of high human population density and fewer lightning-caused fires experience more wildfires overall. These areas include central and southern California, where lightning is dry but rare, and the East Coast, where lightning is common but often accompanied by fuel-soaking storms.

In urbanizing areas of the Intermountain West, human-ignited wildfires are increasing. This pattern can be seen along Colorado’s Front Range, where human-caused wildfires cluster where people have moved into wildlands near cities such as Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs.

Fire, as Balch pointed out, is a normal part of life.

“From making breakfast on a gas-powered stove in the morning, to turning over the car’s combustion engine ignition, people use fire every day,” Balch said. The causes of wildfires often are part of daily life, too: a cigarette flung from a car window; a power line arcing when everyone runs the air conditioner at once; a spark hitting dried vegetation when a motorist on the side of the road starts her engine.

While lightning-caused fires typically occur during the summer, human-caused fires are spread out throughout the year. Nationally, the fire season has grown by three months on average.

Balch suggests her research points to the need to rethink current fire management practices.

“Over a hundred years of fire suppression hasn’t worked. We haven’t put fire out,” Balch said. “We need to think through how we sustainably live with fire and promote more prescribed burns.”

In the past, people have been resistant to controlled burns near communities. People don’t like living near the “patchwork patterns” of a burned landscape, Balch said.

And yet humans invite fire into their lives, sometimes just for the fun of it: The most common day for wildfire ignitions in the United States was July 4, with 7,762 fires burning more than 350,000 acres in 21 years.

“Things might have been different if Independence Day was in winter,” Balch said.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

On this week's politically active Independent comics page: Red Meat takes some swimming lessons; This Modern World discusses the fact that we tortured some folks; Jen Sorenson wonders why the GOP blocked emergency funding for wildfire fighting; and The K Chronicles looks at a violent show featuring the original blue man group.

Published in Comics