California’s young and bold new progressive governor Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, probably figured he’d be thrust into the national limelight after signing a host of must-do liberal measures ranging from statewide rent control to a new union-crafted law that seeks to essentially ban companies from using outside contractors.
He also signed a ban on the sale of animal furs, stopped state agencies from leasing public lands for any oil-and-gas-related infrastructure (to stop the Trump administration from expanding resource “exploitation” on neighboring federal lands) — and even signed a law forbidding hotels from handing out those little bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Maybe the progressive Nirvana isn’t just around the corner, but darn if it isn’t getting closer.
I’m not the first observer to suggest that Newsom is setting up a host of left-oriented “wins,” awaiting a likely Biden, Warren, or Sanders collapse next November, and then will march onto the national political scene as Democrats’ post-Trump savior. It all was going according to plan, and then Mother Nature intervened. You might have noticed that California is burning, as the state faces one of the most grueling wildfire seasons in history.
My favorite commentary echoes the dark humor that’s prevalent here as neighborhoods sizzle, smoke clouds clog the air, and the bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shuts down electrical service to reduce additional fire threats. It comes from the satire website The Babylon Bee and has this priceless headline: “California Legislature Unveils Plan To Raise Taxes On Wildfires Until They Move Out Of State.” Oh no, the writer shouldn’t have given them any ideas.
Newsom’s declarations haven’t been any less wacky. “As it relates to PG&E, it’s about dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change,” he said at a recent press conference. “It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement.” Climate change is the go-to answer for Newsom and his predecessor Jerry Brown.
But even if climate change is the cause of these fires — and that’s a dubious proposition at best — then what do they propose other than hectoring other governments to reduce emissions so that in maybe a few decades we might have fewer fires? That’s not the best approach for a politician with big ambitions and a much shorter time frame. The most absurd part of his statement, however, was to depict public utilities as dog-eat-dog capitalism.
Public utility companies are the antithesis of the free market. They combine the worst of both worlds — a profit motive married to complete government regulation and control. These are government-granted monopolies that operate at the behest of regulators and often are indeed poorly managed. One utility executive told me years ago that he’s the only corporate executive who turns a profit remodeling his office because utilities are paid based on how much they spend. But many progressives think a total government takeover would be the perfect fix. (Then the state could spend even more on utility employee pensions and less on maintaining the grid.)
A more competitive utility market with a dose of real capitalism would lead to far more innovation — and much better maintenance of the electrical grid than we get when bureaucrats and change-averse utility executives are calling all the shots. The other big issue has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with climate-change policies. It involves inadequate brush clearance, which has provided fuel for the fires.
To its credit, the Newsom administration is trying to increase some brush-clearance measures, but its difficulty in doing so speaks to the broader problem. “In March, the governor declared a state of emergency that exempted the projects from the California Environmental Quality Act, a law mandating an in-depth analysis of a development’s impacts on land, water, species and other elements,” Scientific American explained. “Clearances under CEQA can take months or years, Newsom aides said. State officials argued they’re still conducting analyses to ensure projects don’t hurt species or natural or tribal resources.”
In other words, the state must be in the midst of a ravaging inferno before a governor can declare an emergency to exempt brush-clearing efforts from the state’s “landmark” environmental law. Otherwise, it’s a frightfully long process. In 2013, the state tried stepping up its clearing efforts, but that sparked a backlash from environmentalists. And the state Legislature has zero appetite to reform CEQA. The governor never proposed any such reform measures, either.
“I own this,” Newsom said during a recent press conference. “I’ve been in office now nine months. My Public Utilities Commission, which has new leadership as of a few weeks ago owns this.” As the fires worsen and criticism of his administration grows, the governor might regret those words. As CalMatters columnist Dan Walters noted, “Talk’s cheap. Newsom, having claimed ownership of the wildfire/PG&E crisis, now must deliver or become another political executive who flinched.” Ouch.
Perhaps there’s not that much that any governor can do about this disaster at this late stage, but it would be ironic if this comes to define his governorship. Well, Newsom wouldn’t be the first politician who was undone because he was too focused on ideologically driven matters and not enough on the nuts-and-bolts issues of governance. If the state is burning and the lights are off, no one really cares about hotel shampoo bottles.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.