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California and the West | THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Capitol Blame Game Frays Bipartisanship

GOP lawmakers criticize PUC at Assembly hearing; the party plans radio ads attacking governor. Democrats target past Republican leaders.

February 08, 2001|MIGUEL BUSTILLO and TIM REITERMAN and MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — A jolt of partisan bickering surged through the Capitol on Wednesday as legislators sought someone to blame for California's electricity crisis, and found targets in Gov. Gray Davis and the state Public Utilities Commission.

The Assembly opened a series of hearings into the energy crisis by delving into the activities and recent history of the PUC, the state's regulator of electricity. As Democrats and Republicans fired on the commission from their opposing ramparts, the state Republican Party opened another front, taking out radio ads that attack Davis for his handling of the crisis.

"All this talk of bipartisanship--let's get real, this is not bipartisan," said Mike Florio, an attorney with the Utility Reform Network consumer group who later testified at the Assembly hearing.

The bickering came on the 24th straight day of perilously low electricity supplies in the state--yet another day of urgent meetings and court hearings as the state struggled ahead with its efforts to rebuild California's shattered electrical power system.

In U.S. District Court, Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. extended until 5 p.m. today a temporary restraining order requiring Reliant Energy to continue selling power to California if asked by state grid operators. The company sued the California Independent System Operator over the issue last week. Damrell said he will rule on the issue today.

Two years after electric utilities were partially deregulated in California, the state has been caught in a web of surging demand, skyrocketing prices and inadequate supplies. The state's two biggest utilities, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, say they have been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, and the Legislature and Davis have responded with a $10-billion rescue plan.

At the Assembly hearing, witnesses--ranging from the PUC's own employees and former employees to attorneys for a utility and a consumer group--portrayed the commission as an understaffed bureaucracy that struggled to deal with the new realities of deregulation.

Questions from Democrats focused on the changes at the PUC during the administrations of Republican Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.

Republicans questioned PUC officials on the commission's action--or lack thereof--over the last two years in response to requests by utilities to enter into long-term contracts to purchase electricity.

"The Democratic push is that Republican administrations drove away any staff at the PUC that were qualified and meant to do good," Florio said. "The Republican push is, 'Where was the PUC a year ago and six months ago, when it was a Gray Davis commission, and why did they fail to do what needed to be done?' "

In response to the Democratic questions, Paul Clannon, director of the PUC's energy division, said the commission's role had been transformed during the past decade "to referee from cop."

As deregulation was launched, the PUC staff was cut from 1,140 in 1994 to 890 in 1999. Clannon's department, which was supposed to oversee the enforcement of the utilities, saw its auditing staff drop in the 1990s from 20 to four. And the Office of Ratepayer Advocate saw its staff shrink from about 240 to 115.

The result, said senior manager David E. Morse, is that the PUC's consumer protection arm has become less proactive and can initiate few investigations.

The hearings are scheduled to continue today.

Also today, California Republicans said they would begin running the anti-Davis ads on conservative radio stations throughout the state. They accuse Davis of "putting more energy into saving his political hide than solving this energy crisis."

They also ridicule the governor for an executive order threatening $1,000 fines for businesses that do not dim their lights during off hours, and accuse him of moving to re-regulate utilities.

Republicans increasingly see Davis' response to the power problem as a critical chink in the armor of the politically popular governor. Davis faces reelection next year and has been mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential candidate to challenge President George W. Bush.

Garry South, Davis' chief campaign strategist, contrasted the ad blitz to the air of friendly cooperation that lawmakers had been pursuing in the Capitol.

He said Davis would "let this roll off his back" and not respond in kind.

"The governor is just trying to clean up the mess that he inherited," South said. "Hopefully, these ads will be about as effective as the $15 million they spent to promote George W. Bush in California."

He noted that it was a Republican, current Senate GOP leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, who authored the legislation deregulating electricity in the state, and that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed the bill.

If bipartisanship took a lashing, it exhibited some signs of life in the state Senate, where half a dozen lawmakers of both parties held a news conference to unveil a bill designed to speed up the siting of new power plants.

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