My turn: The Legislature confronted California’s new normal

By Toni Atkins and Bill Dodd, Special to CALmatters

The words “new normal” have been used so many times to describe California’s current experience with catastrophic wildfires that it can’t be new anymore.

Sadly, it is “normal,” but that word doesn’t do justice for the Californians now living with grief over what’s been lost or anxiety about what’s coming around the corner.

These Californians were foremost on the minds of legislators as we grappled with how to respond to devastating wildfires and how to prevent them from happening in the first place.

One way or another, everyone feels the impact, including ratepayers being asked to help shoulder the costs of wildfires; people hundreds of miles away from the flames coping with worsened air quality; and others who compete for housing with those who have lost theirs.

How we address intensifying wildfires is one of the most pressing issues before us.

The legislators who served on the Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee produced Senate Bill 901, a landmark piece of legislation signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday.

It will go a long way toward preventing future wildfires and protect utility ratepayers from unfairly bearing the costs of fires that do ignite and cause serious damage. We believe this new law will put ratepayers and victims first and embrace wildfire-prevention best practices.

It also should relieve uncertainty for our investor-owned and public-owned utilities that had been facing the dire prospect of bankruptcy amid massive recovery costs. Make no mistake: if utilities go bankrupt, rates would spike, electricity would be unreliable, and electric-grid safety would be compromised.

Under SB 901, utilities must implement comprehensive fire-prevention and mitigation plans. Landowners will have new incentives to manage their forested property, and there will be an expedited process to remove highly flammable dead and dying trees and chaparral.

The California Public Utilities Commission will review utility wildfire costs and expenses to determine which costs investors and ratepayers should bear. The commission will be able to authorize an investor-owned utility to finance costs of catastrophic fire. Ratepayers will not pay for energy-company executive compensation and perks.

As the Santa Rosa Press Democrat put it in a recent editorial, “We need to keep the lights on, and we need to make fire victims whole. … [SB 901] helps ratepayers in the long run and fire victims in the short run.”

Bill Dodd speaks during a committee meeting.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, Democrat of Napa, speaks during a meeting of the Wildfire Preparedness and Response Legislative Conference Committee, Aug. 7, 2018. Photo by Robbie Short for CALmatters

It’s true that California has become far more vulnerable to wildfires than it was a few short years ago. It’s also true that, with the governor’s signature, California is far more prepared to prevent, fight and recover from them.

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins represents San Diego, [email protected] Sen. Bill Dodd represents Napa and parts of five other counties, [email protected] They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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