In the nine months since Hurricane Katrina renewed worries about California's preparedness for a major earthquake, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has talked passionately about seismic safety.
The governor has demanded federal assistance to shore up the state's sagging levees — which he says are "an earthquake away" from disaster — and urged retrofitting of schools and hospitals.
They cite the governor's support for efforts to reduce seismic safety rules at community colleges, as well as his veto of the funding for the independent panel that reviews state seismic policy and advocates for earthquake safety.
The governor's office rejects the criticism, saying Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, are using their bully pulpit to raise awareness about earthquake safety while also trying to balance quake regulations with the costs that such rules would place on private industry and government agencies.
The latest clash involves the $37-billion infrastructure bond package backed by Schwarzenegger that has been placed on the November ballot.
The bond measure sets aside $200 million for seismic retrofitting of public schools. But that is half of what seismic safety experts sought and only a fraction of the $5 billion that the state estimated the total bill might cost. The governor's office argued in negotiations that $200 million was sufficient for now.
The measure also includes a provision added with the governor's support that exempts community colleges from the tough building and inspection standards of the state's Field Act, meant to safeguard students in public schools from earthquake hazards. If voters approve the bond measure, community colleges would not have to abide by the strictest earthquake construction and inspection standards when building new facilities or buying existing structures.
Schwarzenegger's nuanced stance on seismic safety was visible last month when he addressed hundreds of scientists and emergency preparedness officials marking the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
He called for the creation of a new state Department of Public Health to help with emergency response. "We also must find a way to retrofit our schools and our public hospitals to make sure that they are seismically safe because it is way overdue," the governor told the crowd.
But just months earlier, the governor had vetoed funding for the Seismic Safety Commission, the panel of scientists and safety experts that is the state's independent earthquake policy body.
Long a thorn in the side of developers and government agencies for its calls for greater quake safety rules, the panel had twice beaten back earlier efforts to exempt community colleges from seismic standards.
The panel also has become a target of the insurance industry because the commission is financed by a fee on California policyholders.
The insurance industry has donated about $3.6 million to Schwarzenegger campaign funds, and one of its chief former lobbyists now serves as the governor's chief policy advisor.
The governor initially considered killing the commission, saying its work could be done by state employees. Now he wants the commission subsumed by the State and Consumer Services Agency, a move he says would be more efficient and bring it closer to his office. Some commissioners, however, say the change would rob the panel of its independence by placing it under the control of an appointee of the governor.
Despite the governor's bold talk about earthquake safety, some seismic safety experts question whether he is committed to following through, especially when it means going against interests that have long fought greater seismic regulations.
"He's taking steps, but he's not doing it in a comprehensive way," said Mary Lou Zoback, scientist-in-charge for the U.S. Geological Survey in Northern California.
Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones, a Schwarzenegger appointee to the Seismic Safety Commission who was fired and then rehired last month, was more pessimistic.
"I don't think it's a focus of this administration," she said. "He's not actively doing much of anything."
Bold Talk on Quake Safety, Little Action
Some experts question whether the governor is committed to following through on steps to protect the state.
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
Los Angeles Times welcomes civil dialogue about our stories; you must register with the site to participate. We filter comments for language and adherence to our Terms of Service, but not for factual accuracy. By commenting, you agree to these legal terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.
Having technical problems? Check here for guidance.