California Lawmakers Give Utility a Reprieve Amid Fire Cases

SACRAMENTO (AP) — Lawmakers voted to give a reprieve to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., take steps toward reducing years of secrecy surrounding police misconduct and push back school start times in the frenzied final hours of the two-year legislative session.

The Assembly and Senate adjourned for the year shortly before midnight Friday after passing one of the most contentious bills lawmakers confronted.

They sent Gov. Jerry Brown a measure allowing power companies to raise electric bills to cover the cost of lawsuits from last year’s deadly wildfires, even if the utility is found to have behaved negligently.

Even many of the lawmakers who voted for it said they had misgivings but believed it was necessary to prevent financial ruin for PG&E.

The company is potentially on the hook for billions of dollars if its equipment is ultimately blamed for wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes in Northern California wine country last October, the most expensive fire storm in state history.

“This is about protecting ratepayers, not helping utilities,” said Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who helped craft the legislation. “The fact of the matter is ratepayers would be hurt in a utility bankruptcy.”

The move has infuriated ratepayer advocates, who warned that the measure puts the utility on the hook for damages that haven’t even been gauged yet.

“Without a doubt the cost of our changing climate will be a shared one,” said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael. “But the costs we’re talking about here — the costs of negligence— should not fall primarily on ratepayers.”

The measure is part of a wide-ranging plan to reduce the threat of wildfires, which have caused unprecedented levels of death and property damage in the past three years. The bill also would require investor-owned utilities — including PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — to harden their equipment so it’s less likely to cause fires.

It would make it easier, in some circumstances, to do prescribed burns, clear dead trees and brush, log trees and build firebreaks. It includes $200 million a year for those purposes.

Lawmakers also voted to lift some of the secrecy surrounding reports on shootings and other uses of force by police. They sent Brown a measure allowing the release of records when police are found to have improperly used force or discharged a firearm, committed sexual assault on the job or been dishonest in their official duties.

Another bill would require police to release body camera footage within 45 days of a shooting causing death or serious injury. It grants extensions when release might interfere with an investigation.

Brown, nearing the end of his 16th and final year in office, made surprise visits to both legislative chambers, where surprised lawmakers and their aides snapped photos and, in the Senate, demanded a speech.

The Democratic governor called it “the most powerful legislative session in the last few years.”

The governor will also get the final say on a bill that would bar middle and high schools from starting before 8:30 a.m., a response to research showing later start times make children healthier by letting them get more sleep. More than 80 percent of California middle and high schools start before 8:30 a.m.

Rural schools would be exempt from the mandate.

The measure passed narrowly in both chambers following a debate that did not adhere to party lines.

“This is the single most cost-effective thing we can do to improve high school graduation rates,” Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, said.

A few things failed, including a proposal to link oversight of California’s electric grid with other Western states. It was a priority for Brown, who said it was needed for California to continue its climate leadership.

Advocates hope streamlining the management of the Western grid would help integrate more renewables, allowing California to offload surplus solar power during sunny afternoons and import wind energy from other states when the sun isn’t shining.

Critics say California would be foolish to give up the unique control it has over its grid operator, especially when President Donald Trump is looking to expand opportunities for coal plants and California is looking to shed coal from the grid.

“It is imperative that a regional grid is created at the earliest possible date,” Brown said in a statement.

A last-minute effort to create more state oversight of a project by Cadiz Inc. to pump water from under the Mojave Desert died in a Senate committee.

A plan to raise taxes to pay for modernizing the 911 emergency dispatch system also fell one vote short in the Senate when Republicans refused to sign on to a tax increase. It would have charged between 20 cents and 80 cents per phone line, replacing an existing fee that generally charges more for landlines than cellphones.