Gavin Newsom takes aim at PG&E, while the GOP barks at Newsom over road money

Good morning, California.

“Instead of commemorating conquest today, we recognize resilience. For the first time in California state history, we proclaim today as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”—Gov. Gavin Newsom, joining New Mexico, Wisconsin, Maine, Vermont, and several cities in renaming Columbus Day.

Newsom, CPUC blast PG&E

Gavin Newsom and Marybel Batjer in July at the Capitol

PG&E must immediately change its approach to power shutoffs, under an order by California’s new Public Utilities Commission president, Marybel Batjer.

Batjer directed PG&E Chief Executive Officer William Johnson to appear at a commission meeting Friday. She also ordered that PG&E restore power in less than 12 hours on average in future public safety power shutdowns, and limit the magnitude of future blackouts.

Separately, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on Johnson to give refunds to 730,000 customers in 34 counties who weathered the public safety power shutdown during last week’s windstorm.

  • Newsom’s suggestion: $100 for residents and $250 for small businesses. Presumably, many businesses lost far more than $250 during the outages.
  • Johnson’s reply: “We appreciate the significant impact that turning off power for safety has on our customers and the state. While we recognize this was a hardship for millions of people throughout Northern and Central California, we made that decision to keep customers and communities safe. That was the right decision.”

Translation: Don’t expect refunds any time soon, without an order from the Public Utilities Commission.

Not much risk in demonizing PG&E

Scenic shot of burned items from the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California. March 2019. Photo by Byrhonda Lyons/CALmatters.
PG&E’s equipment sparked the 2018 Camp Fire, killing 85.

Some politicians denounced PG&E’s blackouts last week as unacceptable, inexcusable and dangerous.

Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine of Marin County went further, speculating that PG&E was overly aggressive in cutting power in part to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers to take the utility off the legal hook in the event of a powerline-caused wildfire.

Levine, without evidence, characterized what he said could be the motive:

  • “’We will exact a political cost on lawmakers who will hear from constituents screaming about these power shutsoffs until (lawmakers) end inverse condemnation’ … They may say, ‘If there wasn’t inverse condemnation, we wouldn’t have to turn off the power.’”

That’s a reference to the legal concept that if PG&E’s equipment is partly responsible, it can be fully liable for the costs. It faces $30 billion in liability from recent fires.

  • PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo: “Emphatically no. The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility. Extreme weather events driven by climate change have caused unprecedented and unanticipated wildfires in our state.”

True or not, there’s not much political risk in demonizing PG&E. It also shows how little credibility PG&E has these days in the Capitol.

Live chat: CalMatters’ Judy Lin, Julie Cart and I will host a conversation today at 10 a.m. on utilities, wildfires and the new normal. Watch here. And if you have questions you’d like us to touch on, ask them here.

GOP seizes an issue

Republicans say gas tax money for road repairs is being diverted toward climate goals.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order directing the transportation agency “to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gases.”

In October, CalTrans issued a draft outline of its regional project budget that would rescind funding for Highway 99 expansion projects, and use the savings for rail projects.

Republicans connected the dots:

A Fresno Bee editorial noted voters in November rejected an initiative to repeal a $5.2 billion-a-year gasoline tax, after the state promised the money would be used to repair freeways and bridges: 

  • “There is a term for this: bait and switch.”

CalTrans spokesman Garin Casaleggio insisted the decision to put the highway expansion projects on hold preceded the executive order.

The issue: Newsom has promised to focus on helping the valley, which lags the rest of the state economically. Highway 99 is the main north-south artery connecting Bakersfield, Visalia, Fresno, Merced and Modesto, and is a swing part of the state.

Recycling ‘crisis’ to be a 2020 focus

Yolo County landfill

California won’t require the beverage industry to increase the recycled content in its bottles, for now.

Gov. Gavin Newsom over the weekend vetoed legislation by San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting calling on manufacturers to increase the recycled plastic in beverage bottles to 50% by 2030. 

Ting’s bill was one of a trio of bills focusing on California’s recycling crisis that faltered this year. Others were aimed at phasing out single-use packaging and foodware.

Newsom’s veto message cited last-minute changes that “would put the burden on the state to prove to manufacturers that their products can meet recycling goals, rather than making clear that manufacturers have the responsibility to create products that can meet these goals.” 

Newsom, saying he supports the concept, promised to focus on the issue in 2020 to “accomplish our shared goals.”

Lawmakers did ban those mini-shampoo bottles, beginning in 2023, and provided stopgap funding for low-volume recycling centers, most of which are in grocery store parking lots.

FBI investigates weed licenses

Andrey Kukushkin, OK.ru.

The FBI is investigating whether Sacramento-area marijuana businesses paid off public officials in exchange for favorable treatment and license approvals, The Sacramento Bee reported Monday.

The Bee previously reported that pot shop operator Garib Karapetyan and his associates accumulated licenses for eight capital-area dispensaries. 

  • Karapetyan’s associates include Ukrainian-born businessman Andrey Kukushkin.

Kukushkin was arrested in San Francisco last week after he and three other men, including Rudy Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were indicted in New York on charges of funneling foreign campaign contributions to U.S. politicians. 

  • They’re also accused of using campaign money to attempt to enter the burgeoning marijuana business.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports Kukushkin has held interests in a San Francisco pot shop, and is seeking permits to turn “a 92-acre palatial estate into a sprawling pot farm” in Livermore.

In response to my inquiry, the Bureau of Cannabis Control, which licenses weed operations, identified 12 Karapetyan pot businesses in which Kukushkin is a partner.

Most are Sacramento-area weed retailers. One is a company that disposes of waste from weed operations, promising to compost it. Another is a cannabis distribution service based in in Coalinga.

California voters approved the commercial sale of marijuana in 2016 in an initiative promoted by then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Legislators to focus on vaping

Cannabis vaping billboard, in West Sacramento

Legislators will convene their first hearing Wednesday into vaping since the outbreak of a mystery vaping-related lung disease that killed three Californians. 

Witnesses scheduled to testify include the California Department of Public Health’s acting director Susan Fanelli, acting Public Health Officer Charity Dean, and Lori Ajax, head of the Bureau of Cannabis Control.

At least 132 Californians ages 14-70 have been hospitalized because of vaping-related lung disease, almost all of them after inhaling cannabis-related products, the California Department of Public Health reports

There were 90 cases on Sept. 24 when the department issued its first alert urging people to refrain from vaping.

The cause remains unknown, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which counts 1,299 cases and 26 deaths nationwide, has revised its warning, focusing on cannabis-related products, and warning that people “not use e-cigarette, or vaping, products that contain THC.”

Commentary at CalMatters

Kerry Jackson, Pacific Research Institute: Howard Jarvis’ Proposition 13 swept the country and made headlines around the world. Sounds a lot like Assembly Bill 5. The difference is Prop. 13 is a force for good. AB 5 is a destroyer. Worse, other states are determined to duplicate California’s mistake.

Dan Walters is taking a few days off, but here’s a Dan Walters classic: Water supply is clearly the most important long-term issue affecting California’s future. It’s also the most politically complicated.

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