Lawmakers besieged over energy rescue deal

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San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO — On the 13th floor of Sacramento’s newest upscale hotel, California’s most vocal consumer advocate hunkered down with his allies Monday and declared war.

“We are in the midst of a battle, a huge battle,” Harvey Rosenfield solemnly told reporters called to his energy crisis “war room” three blocks from the Capitol.

Fitted with yellow “Bailout Watch” armbands, Rosenfield and a half-dozen supporters vowed to bring dozens of citizen watchdogs to Sacramento as state lawmakers head into the final three weeks of the most frenetic session in years.

Activists, lobbyists, and average citizens converged on Sacramento this week to weigh in on the biggest unresolved issue before the Legislature: whether to rescue the state’s second-largest electric utility from financial collapse. The decision will help determine how much California’s consumers will be charged for the deregulation disaster.

“We’re at Defcon 1,” Rosenfield said, comparing his campaign to a Pentagon-style alert. “We’re ready to go to war to protect our pocketbooks.”

Too big for its britches

But at this point, the plan to bail out Southern California Edison appears to be collapsing under its own weight. As negotiators try to change the plan to appease one faction, they alienate another. Change after change is floated, attacked and jettisoned.

On Monday, Assemblyman Fred Keeley delivered an uncharacteristically terse retort to a group of Central Valley residents who cornered him under the Capitol dome to complain about an obscure part of the Edison rescue plan he has helped craft.

As Keeley rushed from meeting to meeting, the Santa Cruz Democrat was trailed through the hallways by nearly a dozen residents who drove four hours to press their case.

“We don’t understand why we have to rush up here an hour before you vote to get our two cents in,” said Steve McDonald, a rancher who came to complain about plans for the state to take control from Edison of 21,000 acres of Shaver Lake wildlands.

“Tell your local representatives who cut the deal,” Keeley told the group. “I’ve put nine-and-a-half hours into this, and, from my point of view, I can’t go back and recut every deal.”

Changes cause delays

Gov. Gray Davis had hoped to have the Edison rescue plan wrapped up two weeks ago.

Instead, lawmakers have given the governor’s proposal a major overhaul in an as-yet-unsuccessful bid to find a deal that pleases everyone.

State President Pro Tempore John Burton, D-San Francisco, reworked it to put more of the bailout burden on big business and Edison itself, and sent it to the Assembly. There, Assembly Democrats rescued big business and Edison from taking the brunt of the bill.

Now, lobbyists and activists are rushing around the Capitol trying to find sympathetic ears for their concerns.

Big businesses want to be able to cut their own, private deals with energy companies to save money. Edison wants to have its customers pay off as much of its debts as possible. Consumer activists such as Rosenfield want Edison to take responsibility for its own problems.

“Other bankrupt companies don’t have the audacity to come up here” and ask for a bailout, said Rosenfield, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, who vowed to ask voters to overturn any bailout if it’s approved by state leaders.

Lawmakers met again late Monday to work through the latest proposed changes. But even those closest to the negotiations expressed dim hopes of reaching the delicate deal needed to win support in both the Assembly and Senate.

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