The California Legislature generally abides by the aphorism to “strike while the iron is hot” – bringing bills to a decision when 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 half-baked notions make it through. In fact, more than 1,000 bills await action before the Legislature adjourns on Aug. 31.
Such hurried lawmaking often has unforeseen consequences, reflected in different aphorism: “Act in haste, repent at leisure.”
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Examples are legion, and we’ve seen one this year. Bypassing the usual committee hearings 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 they need psychiatric counseling. The outcry was instantaneous, aimed not only at the law’s questionable provisions, but also the sneaky way in which it became law. Now Gov. Jerry Brown, who proposed the change, is wants a revision to placate critics.
It appears the legislative leadership has decided to postpone action on another of Brown’s proposals, to overhaul laws governing the liability of utilities for damages from wildfires. PG&E and others face billions of dollars in costs from wildfires and have been beating the drums for relief while jousting with insurers, wildfire victims and their attorneys. Brown offered a “compromise,” but last weekend legislative leaders decided the issue is too big 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 sophisticated policy-making going far beyond utility liability. We need to think about insurers’ growing reluctance to cover homes in fire-prone areas, about land use policies and building codes in those areas, about better forest management to reduce fire intensity and about better emergency response – including any throttling of digital bandwidth for emergency responders.
It’s not something that can be done well 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 means the Legislature is adopting a more mature approach. Earlier, the state Assembly refused to take up a universal health care bill the Senate passed, even though it lacked even a rudimentary system to cover its hundreds of billions in costs.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon took a lot of heat from the measure’s advocates, but refused to back down.
If a more responsible attitude is taking root, there’s another candidate for postponement – a bill 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 for CALMatters, a public-interest journalism organization that focuses on California. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.