Editorial: Lawmakers Here Today, Gone To Maui


January 17, 2019

The following editorial ran in The Long Beach Press-Telegram, Redlands Daily Facts, and The San Gabriel Valley Tribune in addition to The Daily News.

As November and its slight autumnal chill — along with whipping Santa Ana winds, and  huge wildfires in the north and the south — descends upon California every year, a state legislator’s mind turns to … well, naturally, to the Hawaiian island of Maui.

That’s where 10 members of the California Assembly and two state senators gathered this past November along with some of the state’s top power company officials at the Fairmont Kea Lani resort. It was four days of mai tais, long walks on the beach and casual conversation about just how much responsibility the utilities deserve for the destruction wrought by the fires that look to have been sparked in several cases by their company equipment.

Dan Howle, executive director and chairman of the California Independent Voter Project, said that no lobbying was permitted and that no specific legislation had been discussed, according to a report in The New York Times.

Uh huh. Perhaps by some formal definition, such as the names of specific numbered bills not being spoken out loud, there might have been no “lobbying” underneath the palm trees. But of course the utilities are trying to influence the politicians. Consumer Watchdog reports that the annual event’s sponsors included Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric, utilities that contributed to the campaigns of between 80 percent and 90 percent of state legislators over the last two years.

Yes, this luau goes on every year and yes, we have criticized its untoward appearance in the past. We understand that the parties that attend the, well, party, who fork out $8,000 apiece to attend, “pay their own way” to do so. For the politicians, that means wealthy campaign donors foot the bill. Donors such as Edison and PG&E.

But as the latter goes into bankruptcy and all of the investor-owned utilities hit the panic button over their current and future wildfire-stoked liabilities, this looks worse than ever. Californians were running for their lives in Malibu and Paradise, and a dozen of their representatives in Sacramento were schmoozing with utility execs, buffeted by gentle trade winds.

The attendees were Assembly members Frank Bigelow, Bill Brough, Ian Calderon, Jim Cooper, Tom Daly, Heath Flora, Jim Frazier, Reggie Jones-Sawyer, Freddie Rodriguez and Blanca Rubio, along with state Sens. Ben Hueso and Cathleen Galgiani.

Defenders of the yearly bash say that, yes, it’s in a nice corner of the world, but that it’s important for lawmakers to be able to visit with utility execs about the issues that concern the hard-pressed industry.

Here’s what Jack Pitney, the former Republican National Committee staffer and current Claremont McKenna College political science professor says: “Going to Maui for a public-policy conference is perfectly appropriate if, say, you work for the Maui County Department of Environmental Management. It does not make sense if your portfolio is in California. . . . There are plenty of conference centers throughout the state. If you wanted to get actual work done, you’d meet in Glendale, where there aren’t many distractions.”

And it’s not just the optics that concern us. The situation could not be more fraught with danger for California taxpayers as the utilities scramble for their financial lives. After the 2017 Maui confab, legislators put forward and approved a bill that allowed PG&E to issue billions of dollars in bonds that would help pay for wildfire damages earlier that year. Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed that bill and then allowed the company to pass those costs on to its ratepayers.

Who knows what utility-backed legislation will blow in from the tropics this legislative session?

The Editorial Board

The editorial board and opinion section staff are independent of the news-gathering side of our organization. Through our staff-written editorials, we take positions on important issues affecting our readership, from pension reform to protecting our region’s unique natural resources to transportation. The editorials are unsigned because, while written by one or more members of our staff, they represent the point of view of our news organization’s management. In order to take informed positions, we meet frequently with government, community and business leaders on important issues affecting our cities, region and state. During elections, we meet with candidates for office and the proponents and opponents of ballot initiatives and then make recommendations to voters.

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