Good morning, California.

“Now is not the time to point fingers. There are a lot of reasons why these catastrophic fires are happening. … This is not a state issue, this is not a federal issue, this is an American issue.”— Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, as quoted in The Sacramento Bee, after inspecting what’s left of the Sierra foothills town of Paradise with Gov. Jerry Brown.

 

Why wildfire legislation will be back

Gov. Jerry Brown, FEMA's Brock Long and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The Legislature’s biggest focus this year, both for Californians and the utilities that serve them, was coming up with a wildfire solution. But “some things only God can do,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it this week.

And no bill can stop the forces of nature, writes Laurel Rosenhall of CALmatters.

  • On Wednesday, Brown toured what little is left of the picturesque and aptly named town named Paradise, turned to ash by the wind-propelled Camp Fire.
  • Brown, as quoted in the Chico Enterprise: “This is so devastating. I really don’t have the words to describe it.”
  • With him were U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long.
  • Zinke: “This is the worst fire I’ve seen.”

Rosenhall’s thoughtful analysis explores what the legislation did and didn’t do, and why, as officials continued the search for the missing, numbering 130, and the dead, now 56, of whom 47 have been tentatively identified.

  • Meanwhile, PG&E’s stock tanked Wednesday amid concerns that the blaze might have been ignited by sparks from shorting equipment. The utility’s liability and financial exposure was a major reason for last session’s wildfire bill.
  • At least 17 of 21 major California fires last year have been blamed on PG&E equipment, and the utility said this week that its insurance won’t cover the billions of dollars of liability if the Camp Fire—the deadliest in state history—turns out to be its fault.

The Camp Fire’s cause, for now, remains under investigation. Also unknown is whether and how the 26,000 residents will or can rebuild. The process will take years, as FEMA director Long says.

This is certain: The Legislature will focus on wildfires again next year.


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High court pick restores Brown majority

California Supreme Court nominee Joshua Groban

Gov. Jerry Brown nominated long-time aide Joshua Groban to the California Supreme Court Wednesday, completing a circle that was broken in 1986 when voters ousted three of his previous justices.

  • Groban’s near-certain confirmation will give appointees of a Democratic governor a 4-3 majority on the high court for the first time since 1986—although the current justices most often agree with one another.

In his first stint as governor, young Brown appointed Rose Bird as chief justice, along with several other justices. Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, Brown’s successor, led a campaign to oust Bird in 1986, citing her consistent rulings against the death penalty.

  • Deukmejian’s consultants organized victims, got funding from various business groups, and defeated Bird and two other Brown appointees, Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, in what was a precedent-setting election.
  • Never before had a California Supreme Court justice been defeated. It hasn’t happened in the state since.

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It’s good to be Gavin

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom with Jennifer Siebel Newsom

First Gavin Newsom was elected governor in a landslide, then California voters gave his party supermajorities in both legislative chambers.

On Wednesday, he hit the trifecta with news from the Legislative Analyst’s Office that he will inherit a projected $30 billion budget surplus.

  • Okay, so half goes to the state’s rainy day fund. But the other half is the largest projected surplus ever in California, and the second largest as a percentage of the state budget.

Reasons: The raging economy, of course, which has supercharged revenues from income taxes. But also Gov. Jerry Brown’s frugality and fiscal cunning.

  • Brown has turned the $27 billion budget deficit that greeted him in 2011, when California was mired in recession, into a $29.3 billion surplus.

LAO annual fiscal outlook: “By historical standards, this surplus is extraordinary.”

Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Whalen: “This is living under a fortunate star.”

One way to spend that surplus

Doe Library, UC Berkeley

A new poll should inject momentum into the governor-elect’s plans to invest more heavily in higher education.

  • Nearly three-fourths of likely California voters believe Gov. Gavin Newsom should make higher education a high or very priority.
  • Ninety-six percent of likely voters believe California’s public higher education system is key to Californians’ quality of life, a Public Policy Institute of California survey shows.

CALmatters’ Felicia Mello details many of the findings here.

Californians don’t necessarily believe college is the only path to success. But fully 90 percent of likely voters believe a four-year degree is important to financial security.

Among the other findings:

  • 73 percent of likely voters believe higher education should be a high or very high priority for the state. That belief is especially strong among Latinos, 83 percent.
  • 80 percent of adult Californians including 93 percent of Democrats support two years of free community college for in-state students, one of  Newsom’s key higher education proposals.
  • More than 60 percent of adults and of likely voters say the state should establish a minimum spending level for the University of California and State University systems.
  • 56 percent of likely voters would support a change to Proposition 13 to help fund higher education.

On cue, California State University trustees on Wednesday approved plans to add 21,000 more students next year and improve graduation rates  without raising tuition, The Los Angeles Times reported.

  • Meanwhile, Mello writes, UC wants the state to provide it with $278 million more than it did this year, according to a proposed budget under discussion at this week’s Board of Regents meeting.

PPIC president Mark Baldassare, who directed the poll: “I think there’s a bipartisan view that higher education is important to California’s future and that it’s a priority that deserves recognition in the state budgeting process.”

Commentary at CALmatters

Lenny Mendonca and Peter Weber, California Forward: The fundamental challenge that clouds the future of the Golden State is the widening chasm between the haves and the have nots. The issue of income inequality is holding California back, and we need to act.

Dan Walters, CALmatters: About three-quarters of local tax increases were approved, including 90 percent of the 168 placed on the ballot in California cities. They are facing sharp increases in mandatory payments for city employee pensions—although that factor was rarely mentioned in the pre-election campaigning.

Talk to the mayors about the CA Dream

Four big-city California leaders—San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg—discuss California’s crisis in homelessness and housing on Friday in Sacramento. CALmatters Laurel Rosenhall will moderate the panel. It’s part of CALmatters’ California Dream project done in collaboration with public radio. For event details and registration, please click here.

Please email or call me with tips, suggestions and insights, [email protected], 916.201.6281. Thanks for reading, please tell a friend and sign up here.

See you tomorrow.