Power Crisis Dominates Legislature

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Associated Press

Jim Jay and his wife drove 90 minutes to the state Capitol where she joined about 150 other nursing home employees in a protest to demand higher pay. They hardly even saw any legislators.

Most were behind closed doors, concentrating on the issue that has all but taken over the Legislature California’s power crisis.

”I was walking around the halls and I heard lots about power, but I have heard nothing about hospital workers and health care,” Jay said.

California’s Legislature is facing several challenges this year among them, health care, including a shortage of nurses and a lack of health care coverage for about 7 million residents, and insurance reforms in the wake of a scandal involving the former insurance commissioner.

But ”electricity has drowned out every other issue,” said Sara Nichols of the California Nurses Association.

The power crisis hasn’t actually done much to delay the passage of any legislation in the nation’s most populous state, since the Legislature usually enacts the bulk of its bills in a burst of activity near the end of its year, in mid-September.

But the effort to keep the lights on and prevent California’s two biggest utilities from sliding into ruin has interfered with the usual committee meetings, the drafting and introduction of bills, and the lobbying of legislators.

Moreover, there is fear that solving the power crisis will leave little money for other projects.

Nichols’ group, for example, wants money for hospital trauma care centers and emergency rooms, which are flooded with uninsured patients. ”There are a number of things that could turn into crises as big as the electrical crisis, and health care is probably the biggest,” Nichols said.

The deadline for introducing bills for this legislative year, at least in a preliminary form, is Feb. 23. Bills can be introduced with the bare minimum of information, with the rest to be worked out later.

But far fewer bills have been drafted at this point than in previous sessions. In 1999, 389 bills were introduced in the Senate a week before the deadline, compared with 209 this year. An additional 43 Senate bills were introduced in a special session devoted to the power crisis.

In the Assembly, 225 regular bills and 46 bills in the special session have been introduced. In 1999, 496 had been introduced by this time.

”This has trumped all other issues in terms of attention, but members are proceeding apace on their legislation,” said Assemblyman Fred Keeley, a Democrat. ”We have a bill introduction deadline in a few days. Members will do all of these things, but they will do it in an environment where their attention is on energy issues.”

Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison have lost $12.7 billion and are on the verge of bankruptcy because of high wholesale prices for electricity and a deregulation law that prevents them from passing those costs on to customers. The state has so far committed itself to spending $2 billion to ease the crisis and could end up paying far more.

Jan Emerson of the California Healthcare Association said her group hopes to get the Legislature to help offset the estimated $24 billion cost of retrofitting hospitals to withstand earthquakes.

”I’m not as concerned about the impact of the time they’re spending, but frankly, there’s a concern about the money being spent,” Emerson.

Harvey Rosenfield, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said he thought insurance would be the top issue in January after a scandal involving Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush‘s handling of earthquake claims and his creation of nonprofit funds financed by insurance companies. Quackenbush resigned last year.

”We wanted to promote some insurance legislation in the aftermath of the Quackenbush scandal. That’s been completely ignored,” he said.

The Sierra Club said some of its environmental concerns are on the back burner as well.

”There are serious forestry problems in this state,” regional director Carl Zichella said. ”Rivers in Northern California are getting shallower, hotter and more polluted by sediment. The ability to support fish and water life is being seriously undermined by atrocious logging plans.”

Ron Roach, spokesman for the California Taxpayers Association, said Gov. Gray Davis proposed a sales tax holiday last month, but Roach has heard next to nothing about it since. Roach said the as-yet-unseen cost of solving the power crisis could undermine plans for tax relief.

”This crisis has sucked up the entire state’s attention and quite a bit of the state’s surplus,” Rosenfield agreed. ”If this continues, there won’t be any money left for anything else.”

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