Faced with a crumbling transportation system, a $15-billion deficit, overcrowded and underperforming schools and a budget system in desperate need of reform, the state Senate has chosen to turn its attention to protecting California from the threat of helium-filled foil balloons. That's right, on Thursday it passed legislation that would ban these balloons and make it a crime to sell them; the bill now goes to the Assembly.
Senate Bill 1499 is promoted by a small handful of well-heeled utilities that would like Californians to believe that occasional and inadvertent releases of foil balloons are somehow at the heart of blackouts in the Golden State.
The facts don't support this claim.
The California Public Utilities Commission reports that there were nearly 6,000 power outages in California last year. In looking at the causes of these outages, the PUC cannot point with certainty to a single one that was caused by helium-filled foil balloons.
Some of the state's utilities contend that as many as 250 of the outages were caused by the balloons. Even if the PUC, which has no vested interest in coming up with excuses for the power companies, were not disputing these claims, one would have to ask, "What about the other 5,750 outages?" Could it be that some power companies are looking for a scapegoat to blame for outages that are really caused by their failure to invest adequately in maintenance and equipment upgrades?
California already has the strictest balloon regulations in the nation. They were developed about 10 years ago and require that lighter-than-air balloons be affixed to weights or to products such as floral bouquets, coffee mugs or teddy bears.
For families who want to add to the fun at birthday parties, help cheer up a sick loved one, congratulate a friend or say "I love you," this bill would be as welcome as a skunk at a garden party. For the 20,000 florists, card stores and party shops that sell balloons across the state, this bill would mean a likely loss of $100 million in balloon sales and the potential loss of $900 million in sales of flowers and other merchandise. And for the state, this bill would compound the budget shortfall by reducing sales tax revenues an estimated $80 million every year.
Balloon manufacturers and retailers are shocked that the bill, which was initially rejected in the Senate, passed under reconsideration -- by a vote of 21 to 17 during a marathon session. Let's hope the Assembly has enough sense to listen to the thousands of Californians who have called their legislators to object to this foolish idea.
The anti-balloon bill is the kind of idea that causes people to make jokes about nutty California. It is unnecessary and unjustified, and the Legislature ought to set it aside and concentrate on the truly vital issues facing our state.