With Senate Bill 656 being only the second bill I have had vetoed over my entire public service career, it provides an opportunity to share that I do not react well to vetoes. By this, I mean that I may come back with a different or improved iteration in a subsequent Session. I hint at it in my release on SB 656’s veto, which is provided by the Orange County Breeze in the second piece below.
Allow me to further explain what I mean. I authored Senate Bill 1463 in 2016. It is the first bill of mine that Governor Brown vetoed. It tried to prevent wildfires caused by disrupted or broken electric power lines. Tragically, in the two subsequent years after the Governor’s veto, numerous innocent and mostly elderly people have died as a result of wildfires from electric transformers and lines sparking in high gust weather conditions.
SB 1463 (2016) would have, at the minimum, accelerated the fire prevention efforts at the California Public Utilities Commission and CalFire so the electric utilities could have had the validation to expedite their processes of hardening the infrastructure that causes fires.
Sadly, the Governor’s veto message essentially said, “The bureaucrats are doing their jobs and I prefer to look the other way and let them finish . . . sometime . . . someday . . . in the future.”
Not that SB 1463 would have stopped all of the fires we’ve seen. But, can you imagine what may have transpired if Gov. Brown had taken this bill seriously? Perhaps there could have been one or two fewer fires. Some mitigation efforts to strengthen lines or transistors could have been easily done.
When Sen. Bill Dodd (D – Napa) introduced SB 901, I immediately asked to be a coauthor. I do not coauthor many bills. But, it was focused in the same vein as my redux of SB 1463 in 2018. I used the same bill number as two years prior, but added the use of Cap and Trade revenues to fund hardening the utility lines around the state. That funding would have brought upwards of $600 million annually to address California’s problematic and ostensibly, reduce GHGs caused by wildfires. My bill was killed in the first Senate committee hearing. This bill had no formal opposition. I can only assume the Committee members who voted against it were more concerned about their pet AB 32 projects than about actually reducing GHG emissions. But, SB 901 became the vehicle for a massive wildfire reform package.
For my Senate colleagues in the impacted areas, it created a Conference Committee near the conclusion of this year’s Session to address dealing with utility caused wildfires. And, why not? I stood up on the Senate Floor on many occasions to point out the massive loophole in AB 32’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases because it did not include those generated by wildfires. So much so, that a few days of wildfires generate more GHGs than all of California’s cars driving for an entire year!
When asked by the Sonoma Valley Sun, for the first piece below, why I voted for a bill that would cost PG&E ratepayers a lot of money, I had two responses. The first is that I have very few PG&E ratepayers in my District. A calloused answer, I know. But, if you live in areas with a higher fire danger, there is an increased cost for addressing this risk.
The second answer was that SB 901 took my recommendation to use Cap and Trade revenues, to the tune of $200 million per year over five years. This is an appropriate use of this unique tax in addressing the generation of GHGs by reducing wildfires.
Not all of my bills will be signed by the Governor. But, when a core piece from one of my bills shows up in another bill, thereby having my fingerprints, then I just may be on board. I even stated the same in behalf of SB 901 on the Senate Floor during the waning hours of this year’s Session (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rEQ9uM7P-o).
For additional history on this matter, here is the journey I’ve had on this topic:
Introduction of SB 1463 in 2016
After numerous committee hearings and three Floor votes, SB 1463 headed to Governor’s Desk
Strong editorial in support of reducing wildfires
After the Santa Rosa fire, the media noticed my previous efforts
Bay Area disappointment in Brown’s veto and the tragic fire
Local frustrations over vetoed bill
SB 1463 Redux, with Cap and Trade funding introduced
Second SB 1463 killed in committee with my reactions
My editorial submission to use Cap and Trade
Efforts to use Cap and Trade funding acknowledged as a potential solution
Other commentators lamenting the lost opportunities with both SB 1463s
All to show that my office is providing a full portfolio on critical issues facing California, besides pension liabilities and unrestricted net positions. There is so much to do. And, sometimes, the Legislature picks up on an idea that, I believe, makes sense.
How the state — and you —will help PG&E pay for the fires
By Dan de la Torre
At the one-year anniversary of the fires which burned nearly 200,000 acres and claimed the lives of over 40 people in Sonoma and Napa counties, the cost of rebuilding is beginning to take shape — as is PG&E’s ultimate responsibility to pay for it.
The bills are still coming in, and lawsuits against the utility pending. But State Senator Bill Dodd, whose district was ravaged by the fires, thinks the figure is about $10 billion. His SB 901, signed into law by Jerry Brown, authorizes that much in bonds.
To back those bonds, every PG&E ratepayer, even those outside the fire area, will now see $50 added to the monthly bill — for at least 20 years. The other $5 billion will come from PG&E itself.
In the immediate aftermath of the fires, blame seemed to be focused solely on PG&E, and the company began a defense on multiple fronts. Because of a legal doctrine known as Inverse Condemnation, PG&E knew that it couldn’t fight any legal battles in court because of the way the language is structured in that particular law.
The law in essence says that even if PG&E did everything it was supposed to regarding maintenance and equipment, as mandated by the state-run California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), it would be liable — no matter what.
With this in mind PG&E began a media campaign to improve its image. It ran ads profiling how the company interacts with the community. It also ran commercials on how much money it spends on overall maintenance, its equipment, and its program to trim tree branches from around power lines. PG&E said it spends $1 billion annually cutting down dead trees and dry brush.
PG&E also blamed climate change as one of the main factors in last year’s fires, something that Governor Jerry Brown has also strongly advocated.
In Sacramento, PG&E lobbied legislators to find a compromise that would allow the company to continue without facing bankruptcy. The legislature and the governor went back and forth with a number or proposals before settling on SB 901. The chief architect of this bill was state Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa).
The Sun recently interviewed both Dodd and Senator John Moorlach (R- Orange County) to get an overview of the bill.
According to both Senators, the 100-plus-page bill addresses the issue on several fronts. A) It makes it easier for PG&E to engage in forest management including tree cutting and disposal of dead wood and dry brush caused by the recent drought. B) Working alongside the CPUC, PG&E will begin the preliminary process of designing underground power lines. C) A financial “stress test” will be conducted to determine how much PG&E can pay without causing it to go into bankruptcy and cause its stockholders, many which are elderly and depend on a limited return from these stocks, to continue to invest.
Senator Dodd suggested that SB 901 will allocate approximately $10 billion in the form of bonds that will immediately be available to plaintiffs suing PG&E. For their part, ratepayers will be assessed that $50 monthly surcharge.
With over 200 individual lawsuits and virtually every city, county and municipality affected by the fires engaging in their own lawsuits, the assumption from Senator Dodd is that $10 billion will be enough to cover all costs.
But it does not address overruns, and it is far from exact.
One of the cities suing PG&E is Santa Rosa. “Honesty I don’t know, as the city is still assessing how much damage the fires caused so at this point there is no price tag,” Assistant City Attorney Adam Abel told The Sun.
To complicate state budget matters, SB 901 does not address claims in connection with lasts year’s devastating fires in Southern California. Or more recent fires in Redding and beyond.
As noted, all PG&E customers will chip in with that monthly $50 fee — no matter where they live.
Diana and Doug Gill, visiting Sonoma from Livermore recently, say the situation is frustrating. They understand that someone has to pay for the overall costs but are demanding more answers. Diana questioned not just the cost of the fire but the cause, as she doesn’t believe that a fire could have spread as rapidly as it did. Like many, she questions if there is a missing element that hasn’t been made public.
SB 901 was signed into law on Friday, September 21. Brown, whose term is ending this year, has said that long, epic fire seasons will be the new normal in California. How to pay for them remains the question.
A plausible possibility is a bill that didn’t pass, but could come back in the next session. AB 33, introduced by East Bay Assemblyman Dr. Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), would have also issued a series of bonds to expedite payments, but had no ceiling price cap. The bill would authorize as many bonds as needed — $50 billion or more was a number mentioned by Quirk’s office.
That figure may have been too high for an election year, but the 2019 legislature might reconsider such an option when the costs of fighting more recent fire disasters come due.
Governor Brown vetoes Moorlach Judicial Pension Reform SB 656
I am disappointed that Gov. Jerry Brown today vetoed Senate Bill 656, which I authored. At a minimal cost, it would have made key changes to the retirement system of the pensions of California judges, encouraging our best lawyers to seek these positions, and our best judges to stay in them. More than 800 California Superior Court Judges signed on in support of SB 656, as comparable retirement incentives for all state employees was a fair and just modification to make. And providing the appropriate benefits ensures judicial quality and integrity, which are essential to our democracy.
Specifically, SB 656 would have authorized a judge, who is not otherwise eligible to retire with a monthly allowance, to retire and receive the annuity at a later date upon reaching the prescribed retirement age. It would have permitted those judges who face difficult personal circumstances in their later years, such as caring for an ailing spouse, to leave office with the promise of later taking the retirement they worked so hard to achieve.
That means the current system is retained. Under it, if a judge must leave office early, he or she must take a lump sum payment instead of retirement annuity, a reduction in benefits that discourages the best from seeking and accepting these posts.
I want to thank my staff, who worked on this bill for two years, for all of their hard work. I also want to thank the staff at the California Public Employees Retirement System for their assistance in drafting the language. Most importantly, I want to thank the majority of California’s Superior Court judges who took the time to encourage us in this endeavor.
This year Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law two of my three bills that reached his desk. I want to thank him for those he signed. But, I believe that SB 656 is so critical to the morale of our judicial colleagues, that I am considering reintroducing this necessary solution again next year under the next governor.
This article was released by the Office of Senator John Moorlach.
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