The California Legislature generally abides by the aphorism to “strike while the iron is hot” – bringing bills to a decision when the votes are there for passage, even if their contents are not fully vetted.
That’s why in the closing days of a legislative session so many seemingly half-baked notions make it through. In fact, more than 1,000 bills await action before the Legislature’s scheduled adjournment on Aug. 31.
These political rushes to judgment often have unforeseen consequences that are reflected in another aphorism: “Act in haste, repent at leisure.”
Examples are legion and we’ve already seen a big one this year. Bypassing the usual committee hearings and other hurdles and misusing a budget trailer bill, the Legislature in June passed a major overhaul of criminal law allowing those who commit even vicious crimes to escape prison if they can convince a judge that they need psychiatric counseling. The outcry was instantaneous, aimed not only at the law’s very questionable provisions, but also the rather sneaky way in which it was done. Now Gov. Jerry Brown, who proposed the change, is calling for a revision to placate critics.
It appears that the legislative leadership, however, has decided to postpone action on another of Brown’s proposals, this one to overhaul laws governing the liability of utilities for damages from wildfires. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and other utilities face billions of dollars in costs from wildfires and have been beating the drums for relief and jousting with insurers, wildfire victims and victims’ attorneys inside the Capitol.
Brown proposed what he characterized as a compromise, but over the weekend, legislative leaders decided that the issue is too big and too contentious to act on this session.
Good for them. If, as many suspect, horrendous wildfires are now California’s new normal, dealing with them will take some very sophisticated policy-making that goes way beyond utility liability. We also need to think about insurers’ growing reluctance to cover homes in fire-prone areas, about new land use policies and building codes in those areas, about better management of forests to reduce the intensity of fires and about better emergency response. It’s not something that can be competently done in a few days, or even a few weeks – especially when a new governor will be taking office in a few months.
Perhaps the decision not to act hastily on this issue means the Legislature is moving toward a more mature approach to serious issues. Earlier, the state Assembly refused to take up a universal health care bill that the Senate had passed, even though it lacked even a rudimentary system to cover its hundreds of billions of dollars in costs. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon took a lot of heat from the measure’s ardent advocates, but refused to back down.
If a more responsible attitude is taking root, there’s another candidate for rational postponement, one that also affects vital electric power services. Brown wants the Legislature to tie the state’s electrical grid to those of other Western states, ceding authority over operational governance to a still-amorphous new agency.
It’s a big gamble at best and the pending bill should not be enacted until all of its ramifications are known and it has undergone a political stress test.
Dan Walters is a columnist at CALMatters. He can be contacted at email@example.com.