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Power brokers

Instead of falling asleep at the switch again, the Legislature has to take action on renewable energy.

November 09, 2008

It is one of Sacramento's enduring mysteries: Why does legislation that is overwhelmingly popular with lawmakers, the administration and the public sometimes vanish into a bureaucratic black hole? Is it interference from special interests, bad leadership, squabbling between the two houses of the Legislature?

The sad fate of SB 411 from Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) was probably sealed by all of the above. The bill, which would have required California to get 33% of its power from renewable sources by 2020, was passed this year by the Senate but never reached a vote in the Assembly. Though it was a two-year bill, it also failed to get through the Legislature last year, meaning it's now gone with the wind turbine.

The result: Environmental activists put Proposition 7 on the ballot, presenting California voters with a poorly written mandate for achieving 50% renewable power by 2025. Fortunately, it was turned down Tuesday, but if lawmakers don't start doing their jobs, there's an excellent chance we'll be confronted with Son of Proposition 7 in 2010.

The 33% renewable standard is far from controversial. The California Air Resources Board, which is developing a plan to meet the state's goal to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, lists the 33% renewable mandate among the key steps. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports it, as do the Democrats making up the majority of both houses of the Legislature. So what's the problem?

A lot of bills were held up in the Assembly last year during the rocky transition of leadership from Fabian Nunez to current Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). Some also fell victim to childish games of one-upmanship between the Assembly and Senate, with lawmakers holding others' bills hostage until their own were addressed, or becoming so piqued because their bills had stalled that they didn't want their rivals' to succeed. SB 411 fell into these cracks. In addition, utilities had legitimate concerns about the bill, asking for provisions to make it easier for them to build transmission lines from renewable power generators to urban centers, among other issues.

Though SB 411 is dead, Simitian plans to submit another bill much like it in 2009. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Paul Krekorian (D-Burbank) is leading a group that's also studying a renewable power standard. They must not fail again. Voters didn't reject Proposition 7 because they don't care about clean power, but because they were justifiably confused by its ham-fisted approach. That's why complex energy policy issues are better handled by elected representatives -- or at least they would be, if California's would show more maturity and do the right thing.

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