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Solar plan risks scorching L.A.'s political future

November 26, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

If you like the way your state government in Sacramento works, you'll love what the Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles Act will do for local politics.

If approved by the voters, this local initiative, which will appear on the ballot next March, directs the Department of Water and Power to install enough solar panels atop government and commercial buildings to generate 400 megawatts of electricity within six years. The panels will belong to the DWP and must be installed by the agency's employees, who are the city's best-paid unionized workers. Solar power is clean, sustainable and helps reduce global warming, but it's relatively expensive when compared with other forms of power generation, so everyone agrees electricity bills will go up if the initiative passes.

How much?

Well, neither the DWP, nor Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (who enthusiastically backs the measure), nor the City Council (which unanimously voted to put it on the ballot) really knows. The estimated increase in your bill is all over the map, from as low as 2% to as high as 8%.

So why push ahead without figuring all this out? The answer is that the Green Energy and Good Jobs Act is the leading edge of a wave of local governmental change. Call it the "capitolization" of L.A. politics.

These days, Sacramento is a sinkhole of dysfunction for a variety of reasons, but none is more important than the corrosive interplay of the initiative process, powerful interest groups and our term-limited Legislature. Anybody with $1 million to pay a professional consultant can write a law and qualify a measure for the ballot and, if the interest group has a deep enough war chest -- say, access to lots of members' dues or casino revenues -- they've got a better-than-good chance of passing it. As a result of this process, 80% of the state budget already has been allocated by initiative, leaving legislators to pick around the margins. Because of term limits, most lawmakers already have their eye on the next job, so why not make friends of the people powerful enough to write and back ballot measures? Why make enemies by making hard legislative decisions? Better to put it all on our increasingly baroque ballots and "let the people decide."

The problem is that, when it comes to effective government, this is a kind of death spiral.

Now, some of the same people and forces that have pushed Sacramento into its downward spin are busily doing the same thing to local government here and profiting handsomely in the process. In this case, the proposed ends -- clean energy and jobs -- are good ones, but we might want to take a very hard look at the means.

As The Times' David Zahniser has reported, the solar initiative was drafted by two officials of a labor advocacy group, Working Californians. On top of that, one of them, Brian D'Arcy, is business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, which represents DWP employees. The local's spokesman, and political and media consultant, Bob Cherry, a partner in the consulting firm of Hein, Cherry and Attore Inc., is in on the act as well. Cherry and his partners are former longtime officials of the California Teachers Assn., and their firm's website stresses their mutual role in turning that organization into such a potent statewide political force.

Once the union and its paid consultants drafted a measure that guaranteed the local more members, and more fees for Hein, Cherry and Attore as consultants to the campaign, it enlisted Villaraigosa's support to bypass the DWP commissioners, who normally would have held public hearings on such a proposal and passed on its merits. Not this time -- with the mayor greasing the skids, the solar initiative slid right into the City Council's lap, and that smoking wreck of a deliberative body voted 11-0 to put the measure before the electorate.

This happened despite the fact that Councilman Richard Alarcon told Zahniser, "Unfortunately, we don't have the time to fully understand and analyze this proposal." Why not? Is there some chance the sun will stop rising if we don't vote on it this March?

Like most things involving the council and City Hall, this all comes down to money and ambition. At the time Villaraigosa signed on to the extraordinary sleight-of-hand, he was in search of an insurance policy in case billionaire developer Rick Caruso jumped into the mayoral race against him. With its ability to spend unlimited amounts in independent expenditure campaigns waged on a candidate's behalf, IBEW Local 18 -- and Local 11, which conveniently is also represented and advised by Hein, Cherry and Attore -- is pretty good insurance. The council members can hope that the unions and the consultants will remember them and their causes fondly too.

You get the picture -- and, if you don't, consider the fact that independent expenditures by organized labor accounted for nine of every 10 dollars spent to elect Mark Ridley-Thomas to a rare open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in the last election.

If some serious rethinking about all this isn't done soon, the only difference between dysfunctional Sacramento and dysfunctional Los Angeles will be the fact that we don't have Indian tribes or slot machines in the mix.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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