Desperately Seeking Political Protection

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC. She is also a political analyst for KCAL-TV

With polls showing increasing voter impatience with Sacramento's response to California's continuing energy crisis, Democrats and Republicans are scurrying to inoculate themselves against electoral defeat by launching an armada of proposals to remedy the state's electricity woes. Almost every politician in Sacramento has put an oar in the water, and almost no one is paddling in the same direction.

During the two extraordinary legislative sessions on the crisis, 176 bills were introduced in the state Senate, according to the governor's office. Some 222 flooded the Assembly. A Sacramento lobbyist who spends his days tracking energy-related bills estimates that between 500 and 600 have been tossed into the hopper in the 2001-2002 legislative session.

The proposed laws range from creating a public authority to buy and operate the state's transmission grid to establishing a "mobile energy-efficiency brigade." Much of this legislation, says an analyst who follows energy policy, is "biting around the edges."

Other proposals smack of special favors for big political contributors. A bill passed by the Senate, for example, would permit Universal Studios, its theme park and several other businesses to buy cheaper power from the L.A. Department of Water and Power rather than from increasingly expensive Southern California Edison. Earlier, a bill that would have allowed five L.A. County governmental agencies to buy cheaper power from the DWP died in committee.

Gov. Gray Davis is pushing hard for a plan that will protect his flank and prevent Edison from sliding into bankruptcy. With Pacific Gas & Electric Co. insolvent, the governor can't afford another utility bankruptcy on his watch.

Yet, the Legislature, which Davis' Democratic Party controls, isn't rolling over for the governor. A Democratic majority rammed through a bill allowing California to market about $13 billion in bonds to reimburse the state's general fund for money used to buy electricity. But legislators aren't buying Davis' rescue plan for Edison. "The perception," said one observer, "is that the benefits to Edison are too rich." Lawmakers don't want to be caught near anything that smacks of a huge industry bailout.

As a matter of fact, few Democrats feel any compunction to put their own electoral futures at risk to protect a governor whose attitude toward them has been described as "imperious." "He didn't do anything," said one Sacramento observer, "to engender team spirit and loyalty in [his] first two years."

Noting the PG&E; bankruptcy has had little visible impact, some legislators believe the safest route to self-protection is to do nothing. "Let [Edison] go to bankruptcy court; let the judge deal with it," is how one observer described their attitude. Politically, that would take the onus--and the blame for any possible failure--off the Legislature. Lawmakers, he added, learned from the deregulation fiasco that "they are accountable for what they do, not for what they didn't do."

Politicians are using other means besides legislation to inoculate themselves against voter revenge. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews (D-Tracy) are seeking cover behind a lawsuit alleging "unlawful trading practices to manipulate the market." Democratic Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, up for reelection next year and touted as a possible successor to Davis, has announced he will convene a grand jury next month to examine charges of price gouging against power generators.

In Washington, as in Sacramento, Democrats are pushing price caps, and Republicans are feeling the pressure to fall in line. California's congressional Republicans are rallying behind a proposal by Sacramento GOP Rep. Doug Ose, which calls on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to expand controls to 24 hours a day and extend them to other Western states. It appears FERC is moving in Ose's direction, which would help shield GOP congressional and legislative incumbents, while allowing President George W. Bush to maintain his opposition to price caps.

Will all this maneuvering save the politicians? Divining the answer is akin to holding mercury in the palm of your hand. There have been no statewide elections to measure voter outrage since rolling blackouts and rising energy prices became political currency. But what happened in 1978 may provide some clues.

In that year's primary, voters angry at Sacramento politicians who did nothing to stem skyrocketing property taxes, overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13. After the primary, then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who had opposed the tax-cut initiative, quickly embraced the voters' verdict. He nimbly neutralized the issue and easily won reelection in the fall. Democratic legislators bore the brunt of Proposition 13's fallout. Six were defeated in November and several Republicans, known as "Prop. 13 babies," won election.

Davis has yet to demonstrate Brown's political agility, and unlike 1978, when voters decided a thorny issue before Brown had to face his Republican opponent, the 2002 general election will likely be a referendum on whether and how Davis and the Democratic Legislature craft an energy solution.

To avoid a replay of 1978 in 2002, politicians might look to San Diego, where the first rumble in California's energy wars was heard last summer. Faced with voter outrage over escalating electricity costs, San Diego Democrats survived the 2000 elections by positioning themselves as part of the solution despite having voted for the now-infamous 1996 deregulation bill. For example, then-Assemblywoman Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego) co-authored a bill to roll back rates in San Diego for two years. It sped through the Democratic-controlled Legislature and was signed by Davis. Politically, the new law helped her to beat incumbent GOP Congressman Brian P. Bilbray.

When natural-gas prices spiked this year, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House energy subcommittee, observed that, "Reasonable people could conclude people have gamed the system." In California's meandering search for energy solutions, the gaming is not only economic; it's political.

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