Now Davis Doing Too Much, Energy Critics Say

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Los Angeles Times

Faulted early on for responding sluggishly to the energy crisis, Gov. Gray Davis has reversed course in dramatic fashion, wielding his executive powers in a way critics now say edges toward imperiousness.

In recent months, Davis has used his constitutional authority to issue a sweeping series of executive orders: He authorized the state to borrow $5 billion for energy purchases, weakened air pollution standards for power plants and bypassed some of government’s normal checks and balances.

Most recently, he signed an order allowing Pacific Gas & Electric to transfer a Kern County power plant to another company. The move, Davis said, would let the new owner retool and begin producing power by next summer. But it also allowed the company to skip review by the Public Utilities Commission, and suspended a provision of state law.

“It’s the imperial governor,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of Cal State Sacramento’s Institute for the Study of Politics and Media.

The Democratic governor has argued that initially he needed to step back and study the evolving crisis. Then, once schooled in his options, he was able to take decisive action to keep the lights on.

“Extraordinary times demand extraordinary action,” said Davis’ press secretary, Steve Maviglio.

The governor’s aides point to polls showing that the public believes Davis is doing a better job than the Legislature of managing the crisis. Surveys also show him running ahead of the three potential Republican candidates for governor–Secretary of State Bill Jones, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and businessman William Simon.

“My guess is most of the voters would rather have him act decisively and not get caught up in the stalemate of Sacramento politics,” said Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley‘s Institute of Governmental Studies. “They probably figure we can all worry about the niceties of representative democracy later on.”

The energy crisis certainly has presented Davis with his stiffest challenge. Unlike the earthquakes, insect infestations, fires, droughts and floods that have tested past governors, the power emergency has unfolded like no other.

Complex and persistent, it has defied simple solutions because of the innumerable players scattered across the worlds of government, business and finance, and its multiple layers of interconnected problems.

Some Say Davis Doing Too Much

Despite a January State of the State speech by Davis that highlighted the crisis and pledged more than $1 billion to attack it, legislators complained into the spring that he wasn’t doing enough. But now the governor is being criticized for doing too much, in particular for his moves to slam through executive orders of extraordinary scope and volume.

Since declaring a state of emergency in mid-January, Davis has issued more than two dozen such orders, terse decrees that allow a governor to bypass the more time-consuming legislative process–and to avoid jousting with state lawmakers who may not be of a like mind.

This has only happened before in times of life-or-death crisis.

The peak for former Gov. Pete Wilson, himself no stranger to using gubernatorial fiat in a pinch, came when he issued 36 executive orders during 1994, the year of the catastrophic Northridge earthquake, when the normal rules were suspended to get Southern California up and running. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, Gov. George Deukmejian also used his executive powers–albeit to a lesser extent–in bailing out the Bay Area.

During his first year in office, Davis signed about a dozen executive orders, mostly for narrowly focused issues, a world apart from the latest batch, which have fashioned huge changes in the way California does its power business.

“Executive orders have a role, but not as the policymaking process for our state,” said Sal Russo, a Republican political consultant running Simon’s campaign.

“It’s godlike power,” said Tom Hiltachk, a Republican attorney who acknowledged that Davis is within his constitutional rights. “But it’s supposed to be exercised only in extreme conditions. And extreme conditions don’t last for six or seven months.”

Davis’ moves have hardly gone unnoticed.

Consumer advocates are howling over a Davis plan they say would essentially hand control of electricity rates to the governor. Anti-tax crusaders say he has too eagerly embraced the notion that big government–in particular the takeover of power-buying for California’s beleaguered utilities–is the solution.

Orders’ Repercussions Will Last Long Past Crisis

Federal energy regulators in Washington are scrutinizing the governor’s hold over the Independent System Operator, which shepherds the state’s power grid. The key issue: a move by Davis since late last year to load up the ISO board with his own appointees.

More provocative than the volume of executive orders, however, have been the consequences–which will last far beyond the current crisis.

As well as authorizing billions for power purchases, the governor greased the skids for quicker construction of gas-fired power plants, an action that frustrated backers of alternative sources such as wind and solar. He relaxed state environmental reviews and rushed certification for smaller “peaker” plants designed to meet the surge of demand on hot summer days.

Davis cleared existing plants to boost output by up to 50 megawatts without the usual bureaucratic procedures. Open-meeting rules, traditional review periods and other statutory checks and balances were suspended in some instances to speed the push to get more megawatts on line.

Such actions allowed Davis to jump-start an otherwise tedious process, crunching regulatory time down from years to, in some cases, weeks.

“Waiting periods, regulatory delays–all those things stood in the way of keeping the lights on,” said Maviglio, the governor’s spokesman.

The biggest shift came at the state Department of Water Resources, a previously low-profile agency run by a Davis appointee. The department made its first power purchase in December–unbeknownst to lawmakers at the time–and in January began buying power for the state’s financially hobbled private utilities, too broke to do so on their own.

Now the Davis administration supports a proposal by the Department of Water Resources to have the state PUC essentially rubber-stamp any rate increases the department deems necessary, excluding consumers from the process. Several of his other actions have also weakened PUC oversight.

Though the administration argues that it makes no sense to have one state agency regulate another, consumer advocates fear the arrangement would allow Water Resources to raise rates whenever needed without adequate public oversight.

“It seems the way he prefers to operate, free of public scrutiny,” said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “It’s something you’d expect only in some tin-pot dictatorship. It’s monarchical, not democratic.”

Some at the state Energy Commission likewise feel they have seen their power undermined by the executive branch. Robert A. Laurie, appointed to the commission by Wilson, said the independence of his agency has eroded under Davis.

“The reason we were made a commission in the first place, in 1975, was that the Legislature wanted independent advice,” Laurie said. “In my opinion, our advice is no longer independent but is thoroughly controlled by the executive branch.”

Legislators Not Rushing to Help Share the Blame

Legislative leaders have not exactly rushed to the defense of Davis, who even on the best of occasions has an arm’s-length attitude toward state lawmakers. The damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t response Davis is receiving contrasts sharply with the treatment accorded previous governors during a crisis. Wilson, for instance, was lionized for his rapid executive moves after the Northridge quake, a groundswell of support that helped the Republican capture a second term in 1994.

Democrats, at least, say they understand that Davis is in a fix, and most are at least tacitly standing behind his efforts.

“Obviously we would have been happy if more of these actions had been done jointly with the Legislature,” said Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), Environmental Quality Committee chairman. “But hindsight is easy and I wouldn’t criticize him for what he did.”

State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, a San Francisco Democrat and longtime Davis foil, believes the governor is “doing the best he can in a difficult situation. I would not have wanted the buck stopping at my desk.”

That does not mean, however, that Democratic leaders are enthusiastically supporting Davis.

Several were irked that the governor refused to share details of key energy negotiations with top legislative brass, even in private.

His secrecy has extended beyond energy matters. Davis seemed to some around the Capitol to be oddly distant during July’s drawn-out budget negotiations, breaking from tradition by convening only a single session of the so-called Big Five legislative leaders. Administration officials counter that the governor was on the phone repeatedly with lawmakers to round up the needed votes.

When the governor talked of ordering the Legislature to stay in Sacramento through its summer recess to address a bail-out plan for troubled Southern California Edison, irritated lawmakers ignored the threat and went home.

“People skills are not Gray’s strong suit,” said Cal State Sacramento’s O’Connor. “It’s an omnipotent, ‘I’m smarter than you’ style.”

If Davis’ use of executive orders has riled some, concern remains in some quarters about what he might yet do.

Lew Uhler, president of the Sacramento-based National Tax Limitation Committee, suggested that Davis needs to back away from wielding his executive powers, particularly now that the state seems to be skirting a power meltdown.

“It’s all part of his worldview: that we’re all vassals of the state,” Uhler said.

Oddly enough, Davis also comes under criticism from those who believe he failed to wield his executive powers forcefully enough.

Peter Navarro, a UC Irvine economist, argued that the governor should have used eminent domain to seize power plants in an effort to bring prices into line. Instead, Davis has deployed mostly verbal weaponry against power generators. Despite his rhetoric, generators negotiated what critics contend are pricey long-term power deals from the administration.

Davis is trying to renegotiate the contracts. He has also asked federal energy regulators to force generators to refund $8.9 billion for what he contends was gouging during the past year. But the prospects on those fronts are mixed.

Gray Davis used the considerable powers of the executive branch to make all the wrong moves,” Navarro said.

Lights Still On, but Glow Could Dim Later

Davis defenders believe the governor has turned the corner on the energy crisis, at least in part because he took advantage of his emergency powers. He has also been lucky: Mild weather has helped the state avoid summertime blackouts. Media attention has begun drifting to other events.

“Believe me, we didn’t want to be in this business of purchasing energy,” said Maviglio, Davis’ spokesman. “We only did it on an emergency basis to keep the lights on.”

Yet Davis’ use of executive powers to help defuse the energy crisis could have negative political repercussions if the circumstances escalate again, according to UC Berkeley‘s Cain.

“Some of the things that do go sour,” he said, “will be more easily pinned on him.”

Consumer Watchdog
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