By Jeff McDonald, SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
January 13, 2019
Sen. Ben Hueso, chairman of the state Senate’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, was one of a dozen California lawmakers to join 60 utility executives and other paid sponsors at the Fairmont Kea Lani resort in Hawaii last November.
Such conferences are often criticized as inappropriate hobnobbing of policymakers with businesses affected by their decisions, and defended as legitimate working sessions. This one had the added timeliness of occurring while wildfires raged on the mainland — some of them possibly sparked by equipment owned by utility companies whose liability is an ongoing issue in state government.
Much of the work in Maui was focused around panel discussions on health care, public safety, energy and economic development, among other policy issues.
Hueso spokeswoman Erin Hickey said in an email that it is vital for the senator to participate in important policy discussions facing California and to listen to all stakeholders.
“This national policy conference addressed a broad range of issues, including jobs and health care,” she wrote. “It was hosted by a nonprofit organization and involved no lobbying. In fact, Sen. Hueso paid for his own flights and shared in the costs of his stay.”
The four-day convention was hosted by the Independent Voter Project, a San Diego nonprofit co-founded by former state Sen. Steve Peace.
The tax-exempt organization said it works to inform voters about specific debates and to encourage them to participate in the electoral process. It also provides a forum where policies involving billions of dollars are hashed out far from the public square of the California State Capitol.
The Independent Voter Project is incorporated as a 501(c)(4) entity under the Internal Revenue Code, meaning donations to the group are not tax deductible. It is legally defined as a social-welfare organization that is permitted to lobby.
According to utility executives and others who attended the Maui conference, numerous issues that affect consumer costs and corporate profits were debated throughout the week.
“The main discussion topics for the utilities included electric rate impacts on customers as well as clean energy programs and customers options,” Southern California Edison said a statement.
The utility’s equipment is under investigation as a possible cause of the Woolsey Fire, which killed three people, chewed through almost 100,000 acres and leveled more than 1,600 homes and other buildings on its march through Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
Much of the destruction occurred as Edison officials were in Maui talking with lawmakers about how to prevent such disasters.
“Though wildfires were not a main topic for the panel discussions, wildfire-related topics were discussed in the context of the needed utility investment for wildfire mitigation,” Edison’s statement said. “Wildfires are an urgent problem with devastating consequences for all Californians.”
Private conversations between elected officials and business leaders that take place thousands of miles from the state legislature are controversial because they do not always provide for countervailing perspectives from other interested parties, experts say.
“Going to Maui for a public-policy conference is perfectly appropriate if, say, you work for the Maui County Department of Environmental Management,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “It does not make sense if your portfolio is in California.”
Corporations and the nonprofit groups they fund purposely host retreats in far-off luxury resorts to promote private discussions with key governmental decision-makers, he said.
“There are plenty of conference centers throughout the state,” Pitney said. “If you wanted to get actual work done, you’d meet in Glendale, where there aren’t many distractions.”
The host group’s executive director, Daniel Howle, said the multi-day events promote better governance by providing a venue for lawmakers and regulators to meet industry leaders and other experts and explore details and nuances of complicated issues.
The Maui conference included more than utility executives and California lawmakers, he said. A total of 25 legislators from three Western states and the governor of Idaho attended.
“Because of the nature of business in state capitols, these kinds of discussions rarely take place,” Howle said. “The conference offers a bipartisan approach that often translates into greater cooperation when public officials return to their jobs in state capitols.”
A career government relations professional, Howle said the Independent Voter Project restricts discussions that directly relate to specific legislation and monitors panel presentations to make sure no lobbying takes place.
He said sponsors are not told which lawmakers are attending the conferences until they arrive.
“We do that to prevent individual businesses or other sponsors from arranging for private dinners or inviting specific legislators,” Howle said. “The critics have no idea what they are talking about when they complain about influence gained through this conference.”
Even so, executives from Pacific Gas & Electric opted not to attend the November conference. At the time, PG&E power lines were suspected as a cause of the Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and virtually destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise.
San Diego Gas and Electric, which has been working for more than a decade to charge its customers hundreds of millions of dollars in costs leftover from three San Diego County wildfires that were caused by its equipment, also was represented at the Fairmont Kea Lani.
SDG&E spokeswoman Allison Torres said the conference presented a “unique opportunity” to engage in a broad dialogue with a diverse group of stakeholders.
“Participants provided meaningful contributions on a host of issues, including rates, clean energy, wildfire mitigation, energy storage and natural gas,” she wrote. “These substantive conversations could not have occurred without the convergence of policy, business and industry experts.”
‘Mai tais at the tiki bar’
While Howle and others are adamant that no undue conversations are permitted during the multi-day retreats, the larger policy questions under review can mean billions of dollars in profits or losses to the companies that sponsor the events.
After the Independent Voter Project-sponsored trip to Hawaii in 2017, for example, legislators passed a bill allowing PG&E to issue billions of dollars in bonds to pay for damages for wildfires earlier that year. The bill, signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown, then allowed the utility to pass those costs on to ratepayers.
Critics like Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog worry that another such arrangement may be in the works.
“These decisions are being made over mai tais at the tiki bar -- not in the light of day at the Legislature so the other side has a chance to counter those arguments,” Court said. “Edison executives were there while the Woolsey Fire was burning, and they are very much concerned about whether they will be on the hook for those costs.”
Court recently wrote to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, urging them to take up legislation that would require lawmakers to publicly disclose outside-funded trips once they accept the invitations — not months later as current rules allow.
“The public is left in the dark about how and when their elected officials hobnob with special interests who have business before the legislature,” the letter said. “The public deserves full and immediate disclosure.”
An aide to Atkins, who served with Hueso on the San Diego City Council for three years, said her boss was not warm to immediate-disclosure idea.
“California has among the strictest financial interest disclosure laws in the country,” spokeswoman Lizelda Lopez said in an email Friday. “The senator does not feel compelled to require another layer of reporting at this time.”
A Rendon spokesman, Kevin Liao, agreed, saying, "Existing campaign finance laws already require lawmakers to disclose gifts."
Hueso, D-San Diego was the only state lawmaker from San Diego County to attend the conference in Hawaii. He is required to disclose how much the Independent Voter Project spent hosting him at the Fairmont Kea Lani later this year.
Last year, Hueso reported that his 2017 trip to Hawaii cost $3,479.