Newsletter: Do California’s power shutoff woes merit a special session in Sacramento?

Essential Politics

It seems Pacific Gas & Electric, a 114-year-old company that serves more Californians than any other single utility, has done the impossible: It has brought together people across the political spectrum, unified in their anger over the events of this month’s widespread electricity shutoff.

Less clear, though, is how to improve the system the next time gusty winds increase the danger of wildfires sparked by trees and dry brush coming into contact with power lines. The San Francisco-based company is already warning of a possible power shutoff on Wednesday or Thursday in many of the same counties affected by the outage earlier this month. And its top official told state regulators last week this could be the “new normal” for as long as a decade. Southern California is also on fire watch as a new week begins.

Past crises of this magnitude have often led to convening a special session of the California Legislature. But that’s up the governor and, for now, Gov. Gavin Newsom doesn’t seem ready to sound the alarm.



The California Constitution gives the governor the power to gather lawmakers for a special legislative session, convened to deal with specific subjects he lays out in an official proclamation. Frequently used in the years before the establishment of a full-time Legislature in 1967, special sessions were also routinely employed during the economic emergencies of the early 2000s. And in the global financial crisis that began in late 2008, there were nine consecutive special legislative sessions in Sacramento. The shortest lasted 17 days; the longest, almost two years.

The rules say that no other business can come before the Legislature when it’s convened in special session — a technicality, however, as regular legislative sessions often run concurrently with these proceedings. A simple floor motion is all it takes to move from one session to the other.

But there have been times when lawmakers have been called back to the state Capitol, which is what would need to happen now that they’re in recess until January.

On Friday, Newsom seemed unimpressed by the idea. “I think it’s more symbolic benefit than a substantive one,” he told reporters after a higher education event in Sacramento.

Still, here’s why there are benefits: Laws passed by a simple majority during a special session take effect in 90 days, rather than the next calendar year, as do most regular session proposals. That kind of speed may not matter for the fire season of 2019, but it could ensure new efforts are in place before the warm summer weather of 2020.

Lawmakers representing regions hit hard by previous wildfires are already talking about power shutoff rules, improved safety for the state’s electrical grid and more investment in programs designed for communities to generate their own power. Beyond the critiques of PG&E’s shutoff decision, and perhaps new criticisms of Southern California Edison, there are also new calls for holding insurance companies accountable and for possibly crafting a multibillion-dollar wildfire bond to put on the 2020 ballot.

A special session of the Legislature could accelerate action on these kinds of items. Newsom, who has urged PG&E to give its customers cash rebates, didn’t close the door to the idea on Friday. But he also insisted the California Public Utilities Commission — whose president he appointed and which took PG&E to task in a marathon hearing on Friday — has plenty of muscle.

Legislators, representing a different branch of government, may see things differently. But unless Newsom changes his mind, they won’t be back on the job until next year.


The governor promised unprecedented action to solve California’s housing affordability problem when he took office in January. But as the first year of his administration winds down, nearly all of the highest-profile initiatives have stalled or failed.

Is he worried? No, he tells Times staff writer Liam Dillon.

“It’s a stubborn issue,” Newsom said in an interview. “You can’t snap your fingers and build hundreds of thousands, millions of housing units overnight.”

The state faces a shortage of 1.7 million affordable rental homes, which in turn has spawned a rapidly worsening homelessness crisis. Funding to build them still lags far behind what’s needed.

Also check out a more detailed Q&A with the governor on the topic here.


-- President Trump’s reversal on hosting the Group of 7 summit at one of his own resorts was a rare retreat for the famously stubborn man, who was taken aback by a bipartisan barrage of criticism for a proposal that smacked of self-dealing.

-- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders leaped back onto the campaign trail Saturday with a rowdy New York political rally aimed at reassuring supporters unnerved by the 78-year-old’s recent heart attack.

-- A pair of Midwestern moderates, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are making a strong case against the liberalism of Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.


-- Newsom led the campaign to legalize marijuana in California three years ago but has since angered some in the industry by refusing to allow pot in hospitals and outlawing its use on tour buses and in limousines.

-- As the governor ratchets up California’s response to climate change, Republicans and even some in his own party are lashing out at his plans to tap into billions of dollars in gas taxes and vehicle fees earmarked for transportation projects.

-- The Los Angeles City Council took a stopgap step last week to stop no-fault evictions and rent increases, following fears that landlords are hiking rent and removing tenants before new state rental rules take effect in January.

-- California lawmakers continued the state’s expansion of rights and protections this year for immigrants who enter the country illegally.

-- A majority of the state’s Democratic and Republican voters have found something to agree on: Immigrants make the United States a better place to live.


Essential Politics is written by Sacramento bureau chief John Myers on Mondays and Washington bureau chief David Lauter on Fridays.

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