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Taxpayers in the Dark

April 01, 2001

With billions of state dollars already gone, Gov. Gray Davis still won't say how much California is spending on electricity, what price it is paying and to whom the money is being paid. News organizations including The Times have filed suit under the state's open records law, and last Thursday Republican state lawmakers also sued, demanding similar details. The fiscal health of the state is in the balance and there is no excuse for secrecy.

Davis contends that he has to stay mum for competitive reasons, that he won't get the best price on long-term contracts if any company knows what the others are paying. There are so many holes in this argument that it looks like a moth convention.

First, Davis has banned the details of even the state's purchases on the spot market. This has amounted to a staggering $45 million to $55 million a day, an estimate based on Davis' periodic requests to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee for approval to spend general fund money on power purchases. On Thursday he asked authority for an additional $500 million, bringing the total to nearly $5 billion to date.

There is precious little relationship between spot prices and long-term contracts, so not much aside from taxpayer horror is prevented by refusing to detail the spot purchases. As for the long-term contracts, many of the generating companies have been freely leaking the terms. This is what makes state Atty. Gen. Bill Locker's formal opinion supporting Davis so puzzling.

Lockyer's letter to the administration said maintaining the integrity of the power-purchase negotiations outweighed the public's right to know. Even without the leaks and logical holes, this is wrong. It is the state's future that is being mortgaged in secret. In any case, the public is interested not so much in each contract's monthly megawatt price but in what the combined spot and long-term purchases mean to the state's fiscal health.

There is no doubt that the power crisis has triggered state expenditures that will be among the largest in California history. The immediate effect has been masked by the presence of a sizable surplus--an estimated $8 billion this year--and continuing revenue projections above budget needs. What will become clear eventually, however, is the might-have-beens. The schools, the roads, the bridges and conservation efforts, the beach cleanups and sewer funds and aid to cities and counties that will never be. In this golden moment of surplus revenues, California will probably have to live like it's still mid-recession.

Could this be what Davis is really worried about, the public backlash once the true size of California's power crisis obligations is known? He is only delaying the inevitable. The GOP and news media lawsuits, filed after lesser efforts were spurned by the administration, will undoubtedly be successful. Republicans will make great hay out of the debts, and Davis will be politically worse off than if he had been forthcoming from the start. So let the sun shine in, governor--it's coming in sooner or later.

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