Power crisis is political crisis
SACRAMENTO (AP) – Rolling blackouts and a record increase in electricity rates are putting the political squeeze on Gov. Gray Davis just as he prepares for his re-election campaign.
The Democratic governor took a hit Tuesday when the Public Utilities Commission – three of its five members appointed by Davis – approved the very rate hikes he has repeatedly said would not be needed.
The power crunch is just the weakness political foes are looking for; it could leave everyone from business owners to consumers looking for someone to blame at the polls next year.
”He’s the face of the problem right now and so he is going to be the target,” said Nancy Snow, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Davis already has been criticized as having a leadership style that is a ”little bit too much in the mushy, middle-of-the-road area,” Snow said. ”That’s something that he is going to have to overcome in order to politically survive this crisis.”
California Republicans blame the first-term governor for four widespread power outages this year that they call ”Gray-outs.” His first major challenger in 2002, GOP Secretary of State Bill Jones, is making energy a campaign centerpiece.
A top state financial official and fellow Democrat, Controller Kathleen Connell, says Davis’ decision to buy power for Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric is putting the state in financial danger.
And Democratic lawmakers are privately grumbling about Davis’ handling of the crisis as consumer groups threaten a revolt on the 2002 ballot. With up to 25 million Californians affected by the rate hikes, consumer activists hope to attract millions of rebels to the polls.
The PUC voted unanimously to immediately raise rates up to 46 percent for Edison and PG&E customers, saying that would reduce power use this summer and help keep the cash-starved utilities in business.
The increases – which come on top of already-approved hikes of 9 to 15 percent and a 10 percent increase planned next year – are the biggest in state history.
Davis issued a written statement Tuesday easing his ardent opposition to a rate hike.
”While I have opposed rate increases, if it becomes clear that a rate increase is absolutely necessary for the good of the state, I will support one that is fair and do my duty to convince Californians of its necessity,” Davis said.
Davis’ aides are frantically trying to deflect criticism surrounding the increase and assure voters the governor is working to build more power plants and boost conservation to avert blackouts during the hot summer months.
Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said the governor opposes a rate increase but has no power to order the PUC to maintain current rates.
”They are an independent body, they can do what they want,” Maviglio said.
He insisted the governor wasn’t informed of PUC Chairwoman Loretta Lynch’s plan to announce a rate increase Monday, declaring to reporters: ”It’s not a story – it’s the truth.”
Still, some Republicans and Democrats have said the governor has been inconsistent about his pull with the commission.
He announced last week at a dinner with state labor leaders that he had directed the PUC to order utilities to start paying overdue bills to facilities that produce renewable energy.
In addition, Davis administration officials informed several key Assembly members Friday that the state’s power-buying for Edison and PG&E could cost far more than the $10 billion lawmakers and Davis estimated when they approved legislation authorizing the power purchases, making a rate increase of 50 percent or more necessary.
”He is fully dedicated to solving this thing, he doesn’t just want to lay it on the lap of a ratepayer or a taxpayer, and he’s trying to come up with ways to do that,” Maviglio said.
The national attention the power problems draw is raising Davis’ name recognition around the country – for better or worse – as he considers whether to make a presidential run in 2004.
Davis has been making the rounds on the national TV news and Sunday morning talk shows to explain to the nation why the lights have been going out in California.
He has attempted to shield himself by continually commenting that he inherited the energy problems; then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed the 1996 utility deregulation bill largely blamed for the crisis, and California went years with no new power plants, Davis says.
Republicans turn the criticism back at him. The state GOP has already run radio ads criticizing Davis’ handling of the power problems and are launching an all-out effort to blame him for the rate increases.
”It’s a colossal failure of mismanagement on the part of the governor’s PUC,” said Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Northridge.
But even with the energy crisis, Republicans have their work cut out for them in 2002.
The state GOP – long shackled by infighting between moderates and conservatives – is in the minority in the Legislature, holds just one statewide office, Jones’, and must come up with millions to match the nearly $26 million Davis had raised nearly two years before the election.
And polls have shown residents growing increasingly frustrated with the energy crisis, but not blaming Davis. Those surveys were taken before Tuesday’s rate hike and before California was hit last week with rolling blackouts from San Diego to the Oregon border.
The governor’s political campaign isn’t taking any chances, moving quickly to bite back at critics.
Garry South, Davis’ chief political adviser, issued a statement Tuesday saying Jones has failed to put forth his own solution.
”Put your megawatts where your mouth is,” South said.
On the Net:
Governor’s Web site: http://www.governor.ca.gov
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