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Bad End to Bad Session

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Long before last week’s tragic events in New York and Washington shut down the California Legislature for a day, a cloud hung over the 2001 session. Lawmakers were resigned to survival-oriented expectations: survive the energy crisis, the economic downturn and the political winds of population change.

The session came to a bitter end Sunday morning after legislators refused to save Southern California Edison from the black hole of bankruptcy. The inability to agree on an Edison rescue was the chief failure of the eight-month session. Smarting from the fiasco of the 1996 electric power deregulation law, the Legislature feared that a state bailout of Edison would backfire and become a political liability. So, while the energy crisis dominated most of the session, the Legislature usually was content to let Gov. Gray Davis and his administration use emergency executive powers to deal with urgent energy issues.

Davis and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco, both Democrats, exchanged angry words over an Assembly bill to save Edison in the final hours. Davis was for it and Burton against, declaring that any plan acceptable to Edison was bad for ratepayers. In fact, bankruptcy probably will give ratepayers the worst deal of all.

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Davis may call a special session to take up the Edison issue again. Burton, in effect, said don’t bother. The dispute seems intractable. It needn’t be. Although both sides feel strongly about their positions, they owe it to Californians to find common ground for a compromise.

One casualty of the Edison cross-fire was a measure to boost the state’s use of renewable electric power. When the Legislature meets again, either for a special session next month or in January, it should revive this proposal by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford).

Even without the power crisis--significantly eased by conservation and a relatively cool summer--this session was a downer. The state budget had to be cut because of a cooling economy and a drop in tax receipts. And lawmakers’ attention during the final weeks was diverted by the redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines to accommodate population shifts registered by the 2000 census.

Lawmakers devoted their most creative efforts to retaining Democratic domination of Assembly, state Senate and U.S. House seats, with the GOP’s tacit approval. Democratic districts will be even more heavily Democratic and Republican districts more Republican. The result may be good for the politicians but bad for voters. Moderate candidates will have more trouble winning primaries in the more sharply partisan districts.

Legislators did pass some commendable bills that deserve the governor’s signature. Particularly notable was a measure requiring large housing developments to have an assured water supply and one to make prospective handgun owners demonstrate that they can safely handle such weapons.

Alas, lawmakers let even these good sense bills get mired in controversy. They need to do better when they meet next.

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