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Tue12182018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The sun was beginning to set as Jim Wood stepped out of the examination room at the Sacramento morgue and walked into the lobby, white surgical booties covering his shoes.

He’d keep working there late into the night, but was taking a short break from the solemn task of identifying bits of human remains gathered from the rubble of the horrific Camp Fire.

Wood is a forensic odontologist—a dentist specially trained to identify dead bodies by examining teeth. He’s also a Democratic state assemblyman from Sonoma County. Those dual responsibilities have put him on the frontline in tackling two enormous, heart-wrenching puzzles: identifying the people who perished this month in California’s deadliest wildfire, and figuring out what state policies could prevent such catastrophes in the future.

“I thought that last year was really, really awful,” Wood said of the wine-country fires that killed 44 people, including some whom he identified through dental records. “I don’t think anybody expected that this year would be way worse.”

This summer Wood served on the special legislative committee that crafted a $1 billion plan to prevent wildfires—an amount he argued wasn’t sufficient for the massive task at hand.

For years before he was elected to the Legislature in 2014, Wood was a family dentist. Along the way, he sought extra training in forensic odontology and eventually became one of just 100 people in the United States who are certified at the highest level in the trade. He traveled the country to help identify victims of America’s worst disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Sept. 11 attack on New York.

More recently, Wood has put his skills to use a lot closer to home. Last year, he helped identify victims of the massive fire in Santa Rosa, just down the road from his house in Healdsburg. Last week, he was surveying the damage in Paradise, where the Camp Fire killed at least 83 people and destroyed 13,800 homes. Now, with the Legislature out of session, Wood is stationed at the coroner’s office in Sacramento, part of a team of forensic specialists who are examining the remains arriving from Paradise in body bags.

Teeth. Roots of teeth. Metal crowns and porcelain fillings.

“Most of what I’m seeing today are the roots of teeth. In these really hot fires, the enamel, or the white part of the tooth, often pops off the tooth,” Wood explained as he spoke in the lobby of the morgue.

“While those roots and parts of the teeth will survive, the jaw bone that supports the teeth is often burned away. So what we get are a bunch of teeth, but no way to associate them. So we use our knowledge of anatomy and the shapes of teeth, and I reconstruct. I look for a way to figure out how they would have looked in the mouth."

Wearing a white lab coat and rubber gloves, Wood arranges the dental remains on a big examination table. After he reconstructs a mouth, the next phase of detective work begins: Gathering dental X-rays and other records of people on the missing-persons list, and matching those images to the remains in the morgue.

It’s been difficult, Wood said, because many dental offices in Paradise burned up in the fire, and with them burned the records that could help identify victims. But he’s scouring other sources for X-rays that were saved electronically. Some 563 people remained on the missing-persons list as of Nov. 21, a number that has been fluctuating dramatically.

Mark Essick, sheriff-elect of Sonoma County, said Wood was a key player in helping law enforcement identify victims after the fires there last year. The sheriff’s department calls him in to help solve other cases that involve dental remains.

“He’s kind of a wizard,” Essick said. “He’s magic at what he does in helping us identify people.”

In between the infernos of last year and this year, Wood served on the special legislative committee focused on wildfire prevention. With his calm demeanor and measured tone of voice, he sat through long hearings on forest management, utility liability and emergency alert systems. He pushed for spending more money on thinning forests, something he said would benefit his rugged district that stretches from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border.

During the hearings, Wood didn’t publicly discuss his work identifying constituents who died in the brutal flames. But at one point in a late July hearing, he lost his patience.

“People are dying,” Wood said to Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker, who had just described a lengthy bureaucratic process for approving utilities’ fire-mitigation plans. “I don’t want to be here five years from now, when millions more acres may have been burned in California, and many, many more lives have been lost, wondering what the heck were we doing. So I apologize for my passion. But … this is my district. This is where 44 of my constituents died, and I don’t want to see any more die.”

Authorities said 16 of last year’s fires involved Pacific Gas and Electric equipment, creating the possibility that the company will face billions of dollars in liability. PG&E and other utilities were intensely lobbying the wildfire committee this summer, seeking a change to liability laws and a plan to help them avoid bankruptcy by spreading their costs out over time. In so doing, they showered politicians with campaign contributions, San Francisco Giants tickets and steakhouse dinners.

Wood was the only fire committee member to return PG&E’s campaign donation, forgoing its $1,000.

“I know how some of my constituents feel about PG&E,” Wood said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable taking the contribution.”

The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been identified, but PG&E reported problems with its electrical lines outside of Paradise just before the fire broke out.

Wood is urging that wildfire prevention continue to be a focus when the Legislature reconvenes. He wants the state to do something big—and quick—though he acknowledges that he doesn’t yet know what that should be.

It’s likely to be a painstaking process, but as Wood heads back into the morgue’s exam room, he seems to have become accustomed to painstaking work.

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

By many measures, the rambunctious campaign for a single-payer health-care system in California appears to be struggling.

A bill that would replace the existing health-care system with a new one run by a single payer—specifically, the state government—paid for with taxpayer money remains parked in the Assembly, with no sign of moving ahead. An effort by activists to recall Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon for shelving the bill has gone dormant. And an initiative that would lay the financial groundwork for a future single-payer system has little funding, undercutting its chances to qualify for the ballot. 

But even if single-payer is a lost cause in the short term, advocates are playing a long game. For now, it may well be less a realistic policy blueprint than an organizing tool.

And by that metric, advocates are making gains.

Riding a wave of enthusiasm from progressive Democrats, supporters of single-payer have effectively made it a front-and-center issue in California’s 2018 elections. It’s been discussed in virtually every forum with the candidates running for governor, emerged as a point of contention in some legislative races, and will likely be a rallying cry at the upcoming California Democratic Party convention.

“This issue is not going away,” said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant who has worked with the California Nurses Association, which sponsored the stalled single-payer bill. “The progressive elements who are supportive of the single-payer concept know that it’s not going to happen now; it’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s a long-term process, and Jerry Brown is gone as of January 2019.”

The governor has not needed to stake a position on the bill, because it skidded to a stop in the Assembly last summer without reaching his desk. But state Sen. Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who co-authored Senate Bill 562, said Brown was not receptive. Analyses peg the cost of a statewide single-payer system at between $330 billion and $400 billion—far exceeding the state’s entire budget. That made it an anathema to Brown’s record of prioritizing fiscal stability for state government.

“When the governor saw that we introduced that bill… all he could look at me and do is shake his head and say, ‘$400 billion dollars.’ And I kept trying to say, ‘Can we back up and talk about what you've got to do to get (there)?’" Atkins said in an interview.

“He wasn’t letting it go.”

Atkins, who will take over as Senate leader next month, said she’s not giving up on the goal of single-payer, but does not expect it to happen this year. “People are polarized on this issue in a way that’s not good for coming together to get it done,” she said.

Led by the nurses association—a labor union that embraces firebrand activism—supporters of single-payer have targeted Rendon after he shelved the bill last summer, saying it lacked critical information on how to pay for a massive overhaul of the healthcare system. They peppered social media with images that not only portrayed the bill fight as a boxing match between Rendon and the nurses, but also depicted a knife labeled “Rendon” back-stabbing the bear symbol of California.

The nurses were not involved in the campaign to recall Rendon, said recall organizer Stephen Elzie, who has since dropped the effort and is now helping Democrat Maria Estrada challenge Rendon’s re-election bid. But the nurses union leapt into the governor’s race as one of the first labor unions to endorse Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Single-payer has emerged as one of few issues on which the Democratic candidates disagree.

Newsom and Delaine Eastin, the former state superintendent of schools, have both said they support the nurses’ single-payer bill. Fellow Democrats Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, and John Chiang, the state treasurer, say they want to expand health care so that everyone is covered, but not necessarily with the single-payer model that would abolish private health insurers and replace them with a government-run system.

A coalition of medical groups is lobbying against the single-payer bill, arguing that it makes more sense to protect and expand the federal Affordable Care Act, which has increased the number of Californians who have health insurance. Some members of the coalition have a history of spending big money to sway California elections. One of them, the doctors’ association, donated to Newsom before he voiced support for single-payer; it’s not yet clear if they will shift support to another candidate. 

Almost two-thirds of Californians like the idea of a statewide single-payer health-care system, although enthusiasm drops significantly if it would require raising taxes, according to polling last year by the Public Policy Institute of California. Still, Californians didn’t cite health care as a top priority when asked last month what the Legislature and governor should focus on in 2018.

The Assembly just wrapped up a series of hearings on what it would take to create a health-care system that covers all Californians. It exposed many obstacles—in both federal and state law—to swiftly enacting single-payer. For one, the state would need permission from the federal government—and perhaps an act of Congress—to shift billions of dollars from Medi-Cal and Medicare into a state-run single-payer plan. For another, if lawmakers raised taxes to fund single-payer, voters would likely need to approve changes to the California Constitution to allow the money to go to health care instead of schools. (That’s the only single-payer initiative that someone is trying to get qualified for the ballot; while a Silicon Valley tech consultant is gathering signatures for it, he doesn’t have support from the nurses’ union or any other well-financed group.)

Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Healdsburg Democrat who chaired the panel, called the single-payer bill “aspirational” and said he’s instead considering legislation that could help more Californians get health care without requiring permission from the federal government. One idea: extending subsidized health plans to adults who are undocumented immigrants.

“I believe we can actually get to single-payer, once we go through a lot of study and a lot of work,” Wood said. “But this feels, at times, more like a litmus test.”

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

Published in Politics

The legalization of cannabis for medicinal and now recreational use is crashing across the country like a bong-water tsunami. That means herb is in the news lately—a lot.

Here in California, some of that news is not good.

Assembly Bill 243—part of the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA), which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October—is causing many cities to clamp down on cannabis businesses. While the bill contains a lot of good, it has a problem: The MMRSA requires local governments to develop regulations for the cultivation and delivery of medical cannabis by March 1. Otherwise, the authority is relinquished to the state. Not wanting to give up that authority, dozens of cities around the state have been enacting all-out bans, denying their patients convenient access to prescribed medications.

This is unfortunate, especially since the provision was never meant to be included in the final legislation.

“It was never our intention to place such a short timeline on local lawmakers,” said Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood, one of the bill’s proponents, in a news release. “The current deadline gives jurisdictions just 65 more days to consult stakeholders, learn about the industry, and write good policy; that is not nearly enough time.”

Wood is now one of the sponsors of Assembly Bill 21, which is currently in committee but is expected to pass and be signed into law without issue. AB 21 strikes the March 1 deadline, allowing local jurisdictions to regulate and enact their own laws at their own pace. “We have widespread support for this fix, including bi-partisan support from both houses, stakeholders and the governor’s office. I am hoping that AB 21 will be on the governor’s desk before the end of the month, and local lawmakers will give this complicated issue the time it deserves,” said Wood.

Despite the impending fix, the League of California Cities is recommending mass hysteria. Because, you know, caution.

“In an abundance of caution, we have been advising our member cities to enact cultivation ordinances—in this case, a ban—to make sure they preserve their regulatory authority whether the cleanup bill goes through or not,” said Tim Cromartie, the legislative representative for the League of California Cities, to the Los Angeles Times. “A ban is the quickest and cleanest way.”

Great.

So how has that affected the Coachella Valley? While some of our valley cities have been working toward their own marijuana regulations diligently for years, others believed the hype and have reacted with fear and rejection.

Palm Springs, being one of the more progressive areas in the valley, has historically been at the forefront of the cannabis movement. The city recently approved a sixth dispensary permit, and council members have said they’d be open to increasing this number in the future as public need and opinion dictate. Recent City Council meetings have also included the discussion of permitting for commercial grows, edible production and extract production. The council members made it clear they want to be prepared to reap the financial rewards of legalization of recreational use statewide—which most people believe is inevitable, perhaps as soon as this year’s election.

Cathedral City is following the example set by Palm Springs, and has issued several permits in recent months. Indicative of the hurdles involved with this emerging industry, the first dispensary in Cathedral City opened its doors in October, more than a year after the council approved the permit allowing them to operate in the city.

If Palm Springs is the tortoise in this race—carefully planning next steps and moving along at an organic pace—cash-strapped Desert Hot Springs is surely the hare: DHS wants to be a mecca of marijuana production and cultivation. It is the first city in the state to approve massive industrial-grow operations, including a recently approved 380,000-square-foot facility that will generate an estimated $3.8 million in annual tax revenues for the city. Grows of this magnitude are expected to be a rarity in the wake of AB 243’s canopy limit of 10,000 square feet for most facilities.

While Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs are working in anticipation of recreational legalization and the revenue streams that will represent, Rancho Mirage has dug its heels in like a child being dragged to the dentist. However, the city’s resistance to the green rush predates the panic caused by AB 243. The city even has a program to reimburse cannabis patients $25 per month for transportation to buy their cannabis elsewhere. It bears noting that no one has taken them up on the offer since the program’s inception. It’s doubtful any cannabis businesses of any kind will be operating in Rancho Mirage anytime soon, regardless of any state legislation.

In January, Palm Desert looked like it would pass an all-out ban on cannabis cultivation and distribution. Then, after hearing from several residents at the Jan. 14 meeting, the council changed the language to allow delivery services to operate in the city. This is great news for Palm Desert cannabis patients who are unable to travel easily.

Indian Wells doubled down on its rejection of cannabis in January, adding delivery and cultivation to its existing ban on dispensaries in the city.

La Quinta has a similar ban in place, but formed an ad hoc committee in December to examine allowing delivery services to operate in the city.

Indio has had a ban on dispensaries in place since 2007, and recently expanded that ban to cultivation. Because, you know, Indio has a reputation to uphold. The City Council is, however, considering regulations for delivery services to operate there.

Coachella recently broke from its long-time ban on all marijuana businesses by approving cultivation in areas of the city that are zoned for auto-wrecking. The approval is seen as a fairly cynical way for the city to reap the tax benefits of the cash crop, and nothing more, because the ban on delivery and storefront dispensaries remains.

AB 243 was meant to stabilize the cannabis industry in California, yet it ended up severely handicapping the cannabis movement with its errant March 1 deadline. Hopefully cities will be as willing to enact meaningful, well-planned regulation once the threat of that deadline has been removed by AB 21.

Published in Cannabis in the CV