Legislative leaders decided to postpone action on legislation dealing with liability of utilities for wildfire damages, and that may be a signal that a more rational approach to policymaking is taking root in the Capitol.
The California Legislature generally abides by the aphorism, rooted in blacksmithing, to “strike while the iron is hot.”
As applied to Capitol politics, it means bringing legislative measures to a decision when the votes are there for passage, even if their contents are not fully vetted.
That’s why in the closing days of a legislative session – such as this month – so many seemingly half-baked notions make it through. In fact, more than 1,000 bills await action before the Legislature’s Aug. 31 adjournment.
These political rushes to judgment often have unforeseen consequences that are reflected in another aphorism: “Act in haste, repent at leisure.”
Examples are legion and we’ve already seen a big one this year. Bypassing the usual committee hearings and other hurdles and misusing a budget trailer bill, the Legislature in June passed a major overhaul of criminal law allowing those who commit even vicious crimes to escape prison if they can persuade a judge that they need psychiatric counseling.
The outcry was instantaneous, aimed not only at the very questionable provisions of the instantaneously enacted law, but the rather sneaky way in which it was done – and now Gov. Jerry Brown, who proposed the change, is calling for a revision to placate critics.
That said, it appears that the legislative leadership has decided to postpone action on another of Brown’s proposals, this one to overhaul laws governing the liability of utilities for damages from wildfires.
Pacific Gas and Electric and other utilities face billions of dollars in costs from wildfires and have been beating the drums for relief, jousting with insurers, wildfire victims and the victims’ attorneys inside the Capitol.
Brown proposed what he characterized as a compromise, but over the weekend, with less than a fortnight remaining in this year’s session, legislative leaders decided that the issue is too big and too contentious to act this year.
Good for them.
If, as many suspect, horrendous wildfires are now California’s new norm, dealing with them will take some very sophisticated policymaking that goes way beyond the utilities’ liability.
We need to think about insurers’ growing reluctance to cover homes in fire-prone areas, about new land use policies and building codes governing residential housing in those areas, about better management of forested areas to reduce the intensity of fires, about better emergency responses and yes, about the role of utilities.
It’s not something that can be competently done in a few days, or even a few weeks – especially when a new governor will be taking office in a few months.
Perhaps the decision not to act hastily on this issue means the Capitol is moving toward a more mature approach to serious issues.
Earlier, the Assembly refused to take up a universal health care bill that the Senate had passed even though it lacked even a rudimentary system to cover its hundreds of billions of dollars in costs. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon took a lot of heat from the measure’s ardent advocates, but refused to back down.
If, indeed, a more responsible attitude is taking root in the Capitol, another candidate for rational postponement is available, one that also affects vital electric power services.
Brown wants the Legislature to tie the state’s electrical grid to those of other Western states, ceding authority over operational governance to a still-amorphous new agency.
It’s a big gamble at best and the pending bill should not be enacted until all of its ramifications are known and it has undergone a political stress test.