California is burning through its wildfire funds

Good morning, California.

Local governments have set sights on taxing soda. Enter Californians for Accountability and Transparency in Government Spending, a campaign committee set up to promote a November initiative to ban local taxes and fees without approval of two-thirds of the voters. Top funder: Soda companies at $5 million-plus.

Who should pay for wildfires?

Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, center, confers with lawmakers and staff before a hearing on bills intended to help homeowners damaged by the Wine Country Fire.

Burned-out homeowners struggling to recover from the most destructive fires in California history are packing the Capitol and calling legislators a lot these days.

The numbers: Nearly 9,000 wildfires scorched 1.2 million acres, destroying 10,800 structures, more than in the previous nine years combined. Forty six people died in Northern California and 21 in Santa Barbara County. Losses exceed $11 billion.

Eighty percent of the 3,000 families who lost their homes have not settled with insurance companies, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, in the Capitol to argue for burned out homeowners, told me.

“The insurance industry lobbyists are working hard and have a lot of influence,” Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said, heading into a committee hearing at the Capitol this week.

A few points:

  • Homeowners and their lawyers seek legislation to force insurance companies into more favorable terms.

  • Insurance companies will fight legislation that tilts toward homeowners and want to force Pacific Gas & Electric Company, the main Northern California utility, to cover fire costs.

  • PG&E went into bankruptcy during the energy crisis in the early 2000s, and could face a similar fate, though CALmatters’ Laurel Rosenhall documented a recent jump in PG&E’s stock price, when Gov. Jerry Brown announced the state would update liability laws for utility companies.

The California Public Utilities Commission must determine who pays: PG&E stockholders, ratepayers or some combination. CPUC President Michael Picker attributes the fires to climate change, and told me he is waiting for more legislative direction.

Longtime Capitol lobbyist Patrick McCallum escaped the Wine Country fire by running with his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy K. Sakaki, barefoot through flames at 4 a.m. They are living in a rental, $1 million apart from an insurance-company offer.

Status: The Senate Insurance Committee approved two bills this week that promise homeowners some relief by making it easier to collect on their insurance policies. The year is young. There will be many more opportunities to water down the bills, or kill them.

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An insiders’ game

CALmatters’ Laurel Rosenhall explores a part of campaigns well-known to insiders but few voters. Interest groups ranging from labor to taxpayer advocates have a stake in who wins high state office. To pin down candidates on their positions, they give them detailed questionnaires. Candidates have no choice but to respond in writing, or they have no chance of winning interest groups’ endorsements or campaign money. It’s all understandable. Rosenhall asked each major candidate for governor to release their questionnaires, figuring voters have a right to know what promises candidates make. None parted with their questionnaires. That’s not surprising, but it’s hardly justifiable.

An education election

Charter-school advocates have earmarked $12 million-plus to elect their choices for governor and superintendent of public instruction, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his former aide, Marshall Tuck, respectively. On Thursday, the California Teachers Association disclosed it placed $4.6 million in a fund that could support its chosen candidates for governor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and schools chief, Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, Democrat from Richmond. Big-money players understand what’s at stake.

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We love whales

California’s crabbers and crab lovers might cringe if they knew the statistics: 71 whales off the West Coast were entangled in fishing gear in 2016, often from commercial crab pots set off the Northern California coast. That’s up from 10 a year in the early 2000s.

Why? Maybe we’re getting better at counting. Maybe whales are changing course as sea temperatures change.

A lawsuit: The Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity has sued the state Department of Fish & Wildlife for failing to prevent whale and sea-turtle entanglements.

What now? Activists have suggested the state require crabbers to deploy high-tech buoys that use no rope or line, at about $3,000 each—10 times the price of traditional buoys, said Assemblyman Richard Bloom, a Santa Monica Democrat. That’d put crabbers out of business. Perhaps the state could help pay.

Californians do love whales. But there are many demands on state money.

Numbers game

Too much enthusiasm might be a problem for the many Democratic candidates seeking to wrest congressional seats from Republicans. Here are numbers indicative of GOP woes, based on the Secretary of State’s list of certified candidates:

Republicans have no candidates for nine of 53 congressional seats in the June 5 primary. In 2016, the number was 4. No Republicans are running in 22 Assembly districts, more than a fourth of California’s 80 seats.

Takeaway: Republicans probably wouldn’t win in those Democratic districts. But if the GOP forfeits races by not fielding candidates, they give the 25 percent of voters who are registered Republicans less reason to go to the polls.

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Dan Morain joined CalMatters in March 2018. He is the former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee. Morain also spent 27 years at The Los Angeles Times, and has covered the Capitol since 1992.