Lawmakers approve bill that makes PG&E, ratepayers share wildfire costs
The wildfires that brought horror to Northern California nearly a year ago led to some unusual political alliances and rifts among lawmakers as their response came to a momentous vote on a controversial measure that holds both PG&E and ratepayers responsible for multibillion-?dollar damages.
Approval by the Assembly and Senate late Friday night - on the final day of the legislative session - came nearly 11 months after the historic wildfires that took 44 lives and destroyed ?6,400 homes in Northern California last October.
There were Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the vote in each house, with some lawmakers who rarely agree in concert on the measure, while 24 legislators declined to cast a vote.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who co-chaired the special 10-member committee that crafted the wildfire response bill, said Saturday it got “more attention, more hearings than any other legislative measure this year” and there were about ?2,500 bills introduced.
Dodd, whose district was hard hit by the October wildfires, said he was “totally confident” ahead of the votes that the bill would pass in the Senate, which it did handily, ?29-4, with seven members not voting. Three of the four no votes came from Republicans.
The Assembly vote, held after ?11 p.m. following the Senate action, came out 49-14, with 17 members not voting. Eight of the no votes came from Democrats.
“Natural disasters don’t discriminate against Republicans or Democrats,” Dodd said. “We’re all in ?this together.”
One surprise of the evening, he said, was Tehama Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen’s passionate call for support of the bill, SB 901, spearheaded by Dodd.
Nielsen, regarded as the dean of the Senate, took the floor just after Dodd had introduced his bill and recalled the obliteration of Keswick, a small community between Redding and Shasta, by the Carr fire.
“It’s gone,” he said, noting the fire tornado that killed a firefighter in Redding and made cars “literally explode.”
Nielsen, a farmer who has served more than 20 years in the Legislature, blamed the cataclysmic fires on “40 years of neglect” in managing state woodlands, allowing tons of fuel to accumulate.
“That was amazing to me,” Dodd said of Nielsen’s show of support. The districts of the two legislators adjoin, but “we don’t typically agree,” Dodd said.
A similar inter-party alliance came about between Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, and his Republican colleague, Brian Dahle of Bieber in Lassen County, whose districts abut one another. They also served together on the conference committee that hatched the bill in a month.
“This is the kind of bill that resonates,” Wood said Saturday. “Fire doesn’t know political boundaries.”
Support by Dahle, the Assembly Republican leader, brought other GOP members along, Wood said, calling Dahle “a commonsense farmer” and a “reasonable guy.”
Wood said he thinks the chances are “very high” that Gov. Jerry Brown will sign the bill, based on his meeting, along with three other Democrats, with the governor on Monday and two subsequent meetings with Brown staff members.
Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign the last batch of bills he will receive before leaving office at the end of the year.
The bill’s most controversial provision allows PG&E to lean on ratepayers to shoulder some of the multibillion-dollar cost of last year’s wildfires - provided it opens its books for an examination by regulators, referred to as a stress test.
The California Public Utilities Commission would determine how much the company can pay without harming ratepayers or diminishing its ability to provide electricity.
For any fire costs deemed reasonable by the commission, PG&E or any other utility may apply for state-sponsored funding, including recovery bonds that would be repaid by ratepayers through charges on their bills.
The average residential customer would pay about $5 a year for every billion dollars in financing over the life of the bond, PG&E said.
On the floor Friday night, Dodd said the bill was “necessary to protect our communities from monstrous wildfires in the future, and the loss of property, and even the loss of life.”
“We have done everything we could to protect victims and ratepayers in this package,” he said.
The strongest criticism came from Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who said PG&E management has “focused on shareholders’ profits over safety, adding that “this bill rewards their bad behavior.”
“Under this bill the ratepayers will pay for a company’s neglect,” said Hill, who represents the area where a PG&E gas pipeline explosion killed eight people in 2010.