Newsom vents on blackouts as PG&E begins restoring power, Becerra’s privacy rules, and an idea for homeless courts

Good morning, California.

“This is a difficult day to be the chief customer officer.”—Laurie Giammona, PG&E’s customer services chief, to reporters Thursday night.

Newsom rips PG&E

Gov. Gavin Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom ripped Pacific Gas & Electric on Thursday, calling the power shutdown that affected millions of Californians unacceptable, and the result of corporate greed and neglect.

Newsom also said PG&E will take time to fix

  • “There’s no magic wand here.”

Newsom channeled Californians who were furious at the inability of the state’s largest utility to keep the lights on. 

  • “This is not a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades. Neglect, a desire to advance not public safety but profits.”

But like the utility, the state seemed to have been caught flat-footed as the Diablo wind kicked up, with gusts of more than 70 miles an hour in parts of Northern California.

There was, for example, no pre-planning to keep lights on in the Caldecott Tunnel, a major link in the Bay Area traffic grid. CalTrans scrambled to install four rented generators, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The politics of electricity can be perilous. Ask former Gov. Gray Davis. He never recovered from the energy crisis of 2000 and 2001 when there were rolling blackouts, and was recalled in 2003.

Davis struggled with energy deregulation and manipulation of energy markets by Enron and other energy traders, the magnitude of which didn’t become known for years. Newsom has an easy and unpopular target. But voters’ patience is limited.

  • Garry South, who was Davis’ principal strategist: “At the end of the day, when people flip the switch, they want the lights to go on.” 

Power crisis begins to ease

PG&E sought to avoid a repeat of the deadly Camp Fire of 2018.

As hot, dry winds died down in Northern California, PG&E started the laborious process of restoring power in 33 counties, following what the company’s chief executive said was the largest power shutoff of its type in the nation’s history.

But as The L.A. Times detailed:

  • Gusting Santa Ana wind fanned the Saddleridge fire in the San Fernando Valley, threatening numerous foothill communities and closing the 210 and 5 freeways.
  • Evacuations were ordered for Oakridge Estates, Glenoaks and the Foothill area.
  • A Riverside County fire destroyed several homes, and Southern California Edison cut power to thousands of homes.

On Thursday, PG&E Chief Executive Officer William Johnson said PG&E carried out what he called a public safety power shutdown because the company’s goal was to have “zero spark” from its equipment that would ignite a conflagration.

Johnson said PG&E faced a choice between the customer hardship of going without electricity or safety.

  • “We chose safety.”

Johnson said lines become at risk when wind hits 45 miles an hour. 

  • It reached 77 mph in Sonoma County, 53 mph in Placer County and 56 mph in Butte County, where the 2018 Camp Fire left 86 people dead. 

The power shutoff affected almost 800,000 customers and more than 2 million people in 33 counties. It was made worse when PG&E’s website crashed and call center lines were jammed.

The San Francisco Chronicle: The utility needs to inspect 2,400 miles of transmission lines and 24,000 miles of distribution lines, a process requiring 44 helicopters and 6,300 people. They can only work during daylight hours because they must visually inspect the lines.

California utilities are desperate not to be blamed for the next fire, as CalMatters’ Judy Lin reported earlier this week.

What’s ahead: There could be more public safety power shutdowns this year, depending on the weather.

Presidential candidates weigh in

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders

With California’s newly relevant place on the presidential primary calendar, Democratic candidates want powerless Golden Staters to know they feel our pain:

  • Kamala Harris: “None of this is acceptable, and PG&E must be held accountable for the lack of maintenance of their power lines.”
  • Bernie Sanders: “Irresponsible corporate greed threatened the health and safety of 800,000 Californians. Meanwhile, PG&E has paid out billions to its shareholders.”
  • Elizabeth Warren: “Shutting off power will be enormously costly to local economies and dangerous for vulnerable populations. This is not a solution to the climate crisis.”
A new privacy-protection law goes into effect Jan. 1. (Image by Thinkstock)

Becerra offers privacy rules

California is on the verge of enacting the most sweeping privacy-protection law in the country—but details are still being ironed out, and that’s causing no shortage of angst for businesses.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Thursday rolled out new draft regulations of the California Consumer Privacy Act.

  • Becerra: “Data is today’s gold. Everyone is rushing to mine data. And California, as you know, is not unfamiliar with gold rushes.”

As CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall has explained, the 2018 law is the first in the country to give consumers the ability to control the collection, use and sale of their personal data.

The law goes into effect Jan. 1, meaning that regulators and the businesses they regulate have a dwindling amount of time to work out the details. 

The new rules matter. They tell companies exactly how to handle data requests, how not to discriminate against customers who wish to maintain their digital privacy and, generally, how not to run afoul of the massive, complicated law.

The public can weigh in on the rules at a series of meetings that will be held across the country in early December. Then it will be a “compliance race,” said Dan Jaffe, a lobbyist with the Association of National Advertisers. 

  • Jaffe: “If you don’t know until a very short time before exactly how to interpret the law and how to respond to requests from consumers, this is very, very difficult.”

Tara Gallegos, a spokesperson for Becerra, said the new rules are not required to be finalized until July 1, 2020. But paradoxically, that does not mean businesses are off the hook until then.

  • Gallegos: “Businesses should be prepared to comply with the law by January 1st, as is written in the statute.”    

A vote on homeless courts, perhaps

Will has been homeless since he arrived in Los Angeles in 1982.

California voters could see an initiative on the November 2020 ballot that would make it easier for police to arrest people living on the street and place them into a separate court system focused on addiction and mental health treatment.

Mike Gatto, a former Democratic assemblyman from Los Angeles, said he has been working on the proposal for a year.

  • Gatto: “There are a certain set of crimes that tend to be cries for help and should be treated differently, but the existing system does not work.”

Those “cries for help,” according to the text of the proposed measure, include indecent exposure, public drug use and violations of “public nuisance laws.” 

Once in custody, a “Specialized Benefits, Treatment and Therapy Court” could then compel the person to enter an addiction or mental health treatment program or appoint a legal guardian.

Some housing and anti-poverty groups have panned the idea.

  • Christopher Martin, of Housing California: “Things like this really scare homeless advocates because it gets back to this idea that people on the streets are criminals.”
  • Sharon Rapport, of Corporation for Supportive Housing: “The problem is not that they don’t want treatment. The problem is that we don’t have enough resources to provide sufficient housing and services for everyone who needs it.”

A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 16% of voters name homelessness as the state’s most pressing concern, at least as high as any other issue.

Gatto has more than $2 million in a prior campaign account that he could spend on the effort. He said he is also speaking to wealthy philanthropists who he hopes will support the signature-gathering effort. 

  • Gatto: “The population is so upset that if something like my proposal doesn’t go through, they will seek much more draconian proposals.”

Anti-poverty legislation

Outreach worker helps man apply for CalFresh
An outreach worker helps a man fill out an application for CalFresh.

A few anti-poverty proposals—think the statewide rent cap or AB 5, the bill making it harder to classify gig workers—grabbed the lion’s share of media attention.

But lawmakers have passed a whole suite of bills that also could dramatically boost access to public benefits, increase benefits and shield consumers from high-cost loans, CalMatters’ Jackie Botts reports.

Some bills still awaiting the governor’s signature or veto would:

  • Allow elderly, disabled, homeless people and some students across the state to buy hot, prepared food using CalFresh dollars
  • Increase the amount of child support given to families who use public benefits and receive child support debt
  • Make Medi-Cal documents easier to read—in both English and other languages

Newsom signed a bill that would cap interest rates at 38% for consumer loans between $2,500 and $10,000. To read more about that, please click here.

Some context: Though California has the largest economy of any state, it also has the highest poverty rate of any state (18.1%) when you adjust for the cost of living. 

That hits Latino Californians particularly hard, according to a new study, The Mercury News’ Erica Hellerstein reported, as part of CalMatters’ California Divide collaboration.

An analysis by Insight Center for Community Development in Oakland found that 52% of Latino households have trouble paying for basic expenses like food, housing and electricity.

And finally,

To keep up with bills Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed and vetoed on CalMatters’ bill tracker, please click here.

Commentary at CalMatters

Kirk Bloodsworth, Witness to Innocence:  I look forward to the day when we count California among the jurisdictions in the U.S  and the vast majority of countries that have come to recognize that the death penalty can never advance justice.

Tonia McMillian, Child Care Providers United: Child care workers are largely women of color. We have suffered for too long without a recognized voice in our industry. That’s why my provider sisters and I have spent the past two decades fighting to gain respect for the work we do, and for access to a union.

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