MOORLACH UPDATE — Conflagration Legacy — October 12, 2017

I sponsored about a dozen bills while I was the Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector. All of them were carried by Republican Legislators and all of them were signed by the various Governors in office during those 12 years.

This year I had five bills go to the Governor’s desk and he signed them all (see MOORLACH UPDATE — Iceberg Dead Ahead — September 28, 2017).

Last year I had three bills go to the Governor’s desk and he vetoed one of them, SB 1463 (see MOORLACH UPDATE — Rejection/Disappointment — September 27, 2016MOORLACH UPDATE — First Veto — September 24, 2016 and MOORLACH UPDATE — SB 1463 — March 25, 2016).

Senate Bill 1463 was one of my District bills. Councilman Bob Whalen of Laguna Beach did not want a repeat of the 1993 conflagration that wiped out his city and I agreed (see We both worked this bill and he flew up for the Committee hearings and testified.

It first went to the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee where it passed 9-0. It was double-referred and went next to the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, where it was approved 9-0. Then it went to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it had high costs attached to it. CalFire wanted to hire two firefighters to work two years to update the maps, at a cost of $500,000 per year (so stating that this effort was already in process is not remotely close to how CalFire saw this task). After being voted out of Approps 7-0, it went to the Senate Floor and passed 38-0.

We next repeated the drill in the Assembly, appearing first before the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, where it passed 15-0. Assembly Natural Resources Committee next approved it 19-0 and Assembly Appropriations sent it on with a 15-0 vote. On the Assembly Floor it garnered 75 votes and 5 abstentions.

It went back to the Senate for concurrence, as amendments were accepted from the Assembly and it passed 39-0 (as Sen. Sharon Runner had passed away).

Along the way Senator Jerry Hill and Assemblymen Matt Harper and Mike Gatto joined in as coauthors of the bill. All of them understood the challenges that the Public Utilities Commission were facing in trying to complete these maps, hoping that our efforts would bring an urgency to the process.

Not one vote in opposition and it was vetoed!! And his veto letter read:

“This bill requires the Public Utilities Commission to prioritize areas that have increased fire hazard associated with overhead utility facilities. Since May of last year, the Commission and CalFire have been doing just that through the existing proceeding on fire-threat maps and fire-safety regulations. This deliberative process should continue and the issues this bill seeks to address should be raised in that forum.”

It’s true that there was a process going on–it had been going on for 8 years–with little progress. And it wasn’t clear that local input, from the people who know their communities and landscape the best, were given a large enough role in constructing these maps.

Governor Brown was either being a tad vindictive with this new State Senator or the utility companies appealed to him and convinced him to oppose it. Speculation arose that maybe he was lobbied by his sister, Kathleen Brown, a former State Treasurer who is now enjoying a board of director opportunity at Sempra Energy. Nothing else makes sense. So I dared bring it up when I was interviewed yesterday.

There was no reason to veto SB 1463. And now the major cause of the devastating and tragic fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties may be due to the winds impacting electric power lines. The very concern my bill addressed.

What a heartbreak. I tried. The San Jose Mercury News broke the story and it also appears in the Chico Enterprise Report in the first piece below.

The repeal of the gas tax is still moving forward and the San Diego Union Tribune provides an editorial submission on this critical effort in the second piece below. (You may even recognize many of the facts I’ve been sharing in my UPDATEs since taking office in Sacramento.)




vetoed 2016 bill aimed at power

line, wildfire safety

Fallen electrical lines on Parker Hill Road in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Fallen electrical lines on Parker Hill Road in Santa Rosa on Tuesday. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)By mgafni and EMILY DERUY |
ederuy | Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: October 11, 2017 at 5:54 pm | UPDATED: October 12, 2017 at 4:46 am

A year ago, a bipartisan bill aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires from overhead electrical lines went to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

It was vetoed.

The author of the measure — passed unanimously by both houses of the Legislature — now says the governor missed out on a chance to tackle one of his state’s longstanding vulnerabilities: massive wildfires endangering residential communities. But the governor’s office and the California Public Utilities Commission say the bill duplicated efforts already underway among the CPUC, Cal Fire and utilities like PG&E.

Now, as a series of deadly fires rages in Wine Country, serious questions are once again being asked about the safety of overhead electrical wires in a state prone to drought and fierce winds.

On Wednesday, Cal Fire said that investigators have started looking into whether toppled power wires and exploding transformers Sunday night may have ignited the simultaneous string of blazes.

The acknowledgment followed publication of a review by the Bay Area News Group of Sonoma County firefighters’ radio transmissions in the fires’ infancy that found that there were numerous downed and arcing wires. In the first 90 minutes Sunday night, firefighters were sent to 10 different spots where problems had been reported with the area’s electrical infrastructure. The crews reported seeing sparking lines and transformers.

During that same time period, radio transmissions indicate 28 blazes — both vegetation and structure fires — breaking out, mostly in Sonoma County. Firefighters were sent to eight fallen tree calls, with many reports of blocked roadways.

“Those were witnessed,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said Wednesday, regarding the blown transformers and downed wires. “However, you have to go and look to see if it was a cause of the fire or as a result of the fire.”

The state’s fire agency has said it has ruled out lightning, but said the investigation continues for an official cause of the blazes, which as of late Wednesday had killed 23 people and destroyed more than 3,500 structures in Sonoma, Napa and other Northern California counties.

PG&E acknowledges there were troubles with its equipment Sunday night, but says blaming the utility’s electrical system for the fires at this point would be “highly speculative.” It has labeled the conditions in the first hours of the fires a “historic wind event.”

But meterologist Jan Null, owner of Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga, said that Sunday night’s winds, while strong, were not “hurricane force” and had been surpassed in previous storms. Atlas Peak had gusts of 32 miles per hour at 9 p.m. on Sunday night, Null said. By comparison, the peak had gusts of 66 mph in last February.

SB 1463 had been introduced in last year’s legislative session by Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa. The bill would have required the state to identify the places most at risk for wildfires and would have required the CPUC to beef up plans to prevent fires sparked by power lines — including moving lines underground if necessary.

But Brown said the bill was unnecessary. “Since May of last year, the Commission and CalFire have been doing just that through the existing proceeding on fire-threat maps and fire-safety regulations,” he said in his veto message. “This deliberative process should continue and the issues this bill seeks to address should be raised in that forum.”

But the senator isn’t buying it.

“Up until my bill those guys were doing nothing,” Moorlach said Wednesday. “I think you got some false information.”

He said his bill would’ve sped up what had become a cumbersome process and given local communities more of a voice by clarifying how fire risk is defined.

Had the governor signed his bill into law, he added, “I think it would have changed things. … I think it would’ve given Cal Fire a whole different set of priorities.”

Brown’s sister Kathleen, he pointed out, served on the board of the energy services holding company, Sempra. Power and utility companies, Moorlach said, “didn’t want to spend the money” making things safer by moving lines underground.

That’s “so outrageous it doesn’t merit a response,” Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said of the notion that the governor didn’t sign the bill to somehow help out Sempra. “It’s unfortunate this particular individual is trying to score political points by peddling inaccurate, self-serving claims at a time like this.”

CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the years-long CPUC and Cal Fire effort has already reached key goals.

Phase One was completed in 2015 and Phase Two is nearly done as well, which will implement new fire safety regulations in high priority areas of the state.

PG&E has paid millions of dollars in fines and settlements over the years for its failure to properly maintain vegetation clearance around its electrical lines when it led to massive fires.

In April, the state Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $8.3 million for failing to maintain a power line that sparked the Butte fire in Amador County in September 2015. That fire burned for 22 days, killing two people, destroying 549 homes and charring 70,868 acres.

In the months before this week’s deadly conflagrations, PG&E has been active in Sonoma County.

Just last month, responding to what it called California’s “tree mortality crisis” caused by the five-year drought, PG&E began flying helicopters over Sonoma County to identify dead trees “that could pose a wildfire or other public safety risk,” according to a Sept. 20 news release by the utility.

The utility said in that statement that it patrols and inspects its overhead lines annually. Since the drought and spike in tree deaths, the energy company said it’s now inspecting trees twice a year. Last year, PG&E conducted secondary checks on 68,000 miles of electrical lines. Almost 11,000 of those inspections are done by helicopter, the utility said.

The September helicopter inspections flew directly over Santa Rosa and other heavily impacted fire zones, according to the release.

In March, PG&E launched a program to inspect Sonoma County’s 90,000 wooden power poles. It was expected to last through early next year, according to a March 13 news release. The utility started along Highway 101 in Santa Rosa, in the heart of what would be torched months later.

Staff writers Paul Rogers, Lisa M. Krieger and George Avalos contributed to this report.


Commentary |

Gas tax hike has Californians paying more for less

By Carl DeMaio

We’ve heard it all before. Every time state politicians want more money from you with a tax hike, they promise they will use the money to address something you really want. Unfortunately, just as Lucy always snatches the ball from Charlie Brown, the politicians always end up taking your money and breaking their promises.

You pay more and get less. That’s the story of California’s failing state government.

The latest bait-and-switch comes in the form of the car and gas tax hikes.

Years ago politicians raised the gas tax, took out billions in bonds and promised they’d fix our roads. Instead, they raided the gas tax funds and diverted our money — time and time again.

The net result: California drivers have been paying some of the highest gas taxes in the country, and yet we still have the fourth worst roads!

Where does the money go?

First, it gets diverted. State Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, recently released figures showing only 20 percent of gas tax funds are actually spent on roads!

California politicians have been clear about their distaste for cars because they are fanatics on the issue of climate change. Billions of gas tax dollars get diverted from roads to transit programs as politicians reveal zero interest in expanding roads or dealing with traffic congestion.

While politicians claim they won’t divert the money this time, their so-called lockbox is pure snake oil and simply a PR stunt. Read the fine print and discover the politicians retain the right to divert the money!

Just weeks after politicians raised the gas tax in April, they were caught diverting much of it to other purposes including transit, parks, universities, workforce and even farm programs!

Second, the little gas tax money that is spent on roads is largely wasted.

California state government is already known for paying bloated salaries and pensions to its government workers, but it gets worse with Caltrans, the state’s lead agency for managing roads.

In 2016, California state auditors slammed Caltrans for “weak cost controls” that “create opportunities for fraud, waste and abuse.” Those same auditors also found Caltrans is overstaffed by 3,500 employees at a cost of half a billion dollars a year. One Caltrans employee even golfed for 55 days while on the clock and bragged about it!

The few dollars that actually make it out the door of Caltrans’ bloated bureaucracy for road projects are also wasted. For example, individual road projects must pay mandated union-scale wages, do not allow fair and open competition for projects, and waste funds on convoluted CEQA environmental reviews.

All of this waste adds up quickly. The Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report reveals that California spends 4.7 times more per mile of state-controlled highway than the national average. This is despite the fact that many other states have much more icy and wet weather to contend with.

There is a larger issue at stake here. The fight against the car and gas tax hikes is not just about the pain at the pump, it is about the heavy burden every working family is increasingly feeling as California’s cost of living reaches unbearable levels with new taxes, fees and mandates from out-of-touch politicians.

Under this latest hike, the gas tax goes up by 12 cents a gallon and new tax assessment changes will make it a 19.5 cent per gallon hike by 2019! On top of that you will pay a much higher vehicle license fee. That’s an extra $300-$400 per driver per year!

That’s not all. New cap-and-trade mandates will raise the cost of gas as much as 63 cents a gallon. Add it all up and state politicians are now forcing you to pay an extra $1 or more per gallon in taxes, fees and mandates. If you gas up once a week for a car with a 20-gallon tank, you pay $1,250 more per year. A family with two drivers shells out $2,500 a year.

We can stop this madness by starting with the repeal of the gas and car tax hikes. That’s why I joined a coalition of reformers in filing a state constitutional amendment to roll back the taxes and strip state politicians of their power to raise car and gas taxes in the future without a vote of the people.

You can join the grass-roots movement at and help us collect the more than 584,000 signatures to force this issue on the ballot in November 2018.

It’s time we pay less and get more!

DeMaio, a former San Diego councilman, is chairman of Reform California — the campaign against the car and tax hikes.

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