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Sacramento Report: Fires, and the Debate Over Utilities’ Role, Keep Raging

A state audit found that the county’s Health and Human Service Agency can’t prove it’s got enough public health nurses, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber calls her bill limiting when police can use deadline force “the most significant bill in the nation in the last 10 years in the area of policing” and more.

Fire crews work to put out hot spots in a Fallbrook community that was hit by the Lilac Fire. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

California’s never-ending fire seasons now threaten the state’s biggest power company, and lawmakers are trying to figure out what to do by the end of session.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a deal that would shield utilities from some fire-related costs. Right now, companies are strictly liable for property damage if their equipment helped caused a fire. A series of fires last year was so devastating and costly that paying for the damage could force Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy, the company has said. It would be the company’s second bankruptcy since 2000. PG&E said Thursday the governor’s proposal was not enough.

Easing the pain utilities feel for fires they help start is politically unpopular, of course. It’s also not nearly enough to address the state’s growing wildfire problems, said Michael Wara, a climate and energy scholar at Stanford.

“I would argue it’s not even mostly a utility issue,” Wara told the Legislature’s newly formed Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee during a hearing on Wednesday.

Indeed, because of the immediate worries about PG&E, much of the conversation in Sacramento has focused on utility-related issues, but wildfires are even today forcing Californians to flee their homes and it’s not clear when the near-constant burning of the state will stop.

Wara said the state needs better land use planning. Right now developers are putting thousands of new homes out in rural areas that are at the highest risk for wildfires.

Also, if utilities aren’t as liable for property damage, insurance companies may be left paying for more damage, which could prompt them to stop offering coverage in certain areas. According to insurance industry figures, over 2 million California homes are in high fire risk areas.

Wara even suggested a retreat from some high-risk areas.

For coastal areas, like San Diego, this shows how if public officials aren’t going to do land use planning, nature will: In coming decades, rising seas will force some waterfront homeowners to pack up and leave, while rural homeowners may be forced from their homes by burning wildlands.

“One thing I’ve heard is the climate change deniers are being very quietly lately,” Sen. Ben Hueso said at the start of the hearing.

Ry Rivard

State Audit Says San Diego County Can’t Prove it Has Enough Nurses

A state audit released Thursday found that the county’s Health and Human Service Agency can’t prove it’s got enough public health nurses, a conclusion the county is pushing back on.

State Sen. Ben Hueso requested the audit last summer as the county pooled resources to combat an escalating hepatitis A outbreak. Hueso alleged public nurse staffing fell short of state guidelines.

Auditors found that average caseloads for county public health nurses did exceed state benchmarks in programs serving foster children and children with chronic diseases. For example, in 2015, nurses aiding children with chronic diseases averaged 859 cases, more than double the state benchmark and in a survey, 17 of the 21 nurses in that section reported their caseloads were too high.

Auditors concluded that the county did not consistently study caseload or other data to measure nurses’ efficiency and inform staffing decisions. They called on the county establish ways to do so.

Auditors also reviewed staffing tied to the county’s hepatitis A outbreak and found that it hired nearly 160 temporary nurses to address the deadly health crisis.

Nick Macchione, the county’s director of Health and Human Services, disputed auditors’ conclusions about the broader staffing concerns.

“We disagree with any claims that the county cannot sufficiently demonstrate that it needs more, or less, public health nurses — and our positive outcomes speak for themselves,” Macchione wrote in a response to auditors earlier this month, underlining the fact that the state hasn’t set efficiency standards.

Macchione said the county would be willing to help the state develop them.

Hueso, meanwhile, said he is considering legislative solutions to establish standards this fall.

A second audit focused on local governments’ hepatitis A response, requested by Assemblyman Todd Gloria, is expected to be released in December.

Lisa Halverstadt

Weber Rallies Support for ‘Most Significant’ Police Bill in the Last Decade

At a community forum in City Heights on Wednesday, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber described AB 931, her bill seeking to limit when police can use deadly force, as “probably the most significant bill in the nation in the last 10 years in the area of policing.”

The forum was held to drum up support for the bill, which faces steep opposition from law enforcement. She compared it to her Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015, which faced similar opposition and lingered on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk while supporters held round-the-clock vigils at the state Capitol.

“Do not let these people go on a hunger strike,” Weber recalled telling Brown. The governor ultimately signed the bill, which requires law enforcement agencies to collect and report data on all police stops.

Introduced in April, AB 931 would change the standard used to justify deadly force by police. The current test asks whether an officer’s use of force was reasonable. Weber’s bill would require an officer to prove that it was necessary. A recent amendment to the bill also requires officers to deploy nonlethal tactics “to deescalate a situation whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so.”

In June, the bill cleared the Senate Public Safety Committee on a 5-2 vote and will next goes to the Senate’s appropriations committee. A date for that hearing hasn’t been set, but all bills must clear the Legislature by Aug. 31.

So far, at least 21 law enforcement groups have formally opposed AB 931. In a bill analysis prepared for the Senate Public Safety Committee, the California Police Chiefs Association argued that any policy that slows the split-second decisions officers are often required to make will compromise their safety.

“If our officers cannot respond to emergency situations until backup arrives or are forced to employ a checklist during rapidly advancing and extraordinarily dangerous situations, everyone involved is placed at a higher risk,” the association argued.

Weber, who sits on the Joint Legislative Budget committee, said she made sure $25 million was included in next year’s budget to pay for training in new de-escalation strategies.

“[Police] do know strategies,” Weber said. “because they use them. But they don’t use them on everybody.”

Kelly Davis

San Diego Odds and Ends

  • “So can you live on 55 gallons of water a day? No one can,” Assemblywoman Marie Waldron wrote in a Times of San Diego op-ed this week. She was referring to new state law that sets a daily goal for indoor water use of 55 gallons per person, starting in 2022. Ry Rivard pointed out the ways in which Waldron’s claims about the law were misleading in this week’s Environment Report.
  • Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill by Assemblyman Brian Maienschein that requires the state Health Department to apply for federal funding created during the Obama administration specifically to support maternal mental health.
  • Adam Day, who leads business operations for Sycuan, talks about his vision now that he’s chairman of the California State University board of trustees.

Golden State News

  • A deep dive on SB 54 finds it doesn’t protect immigrants the way supporters claimed, or release dangerous criminals into the community the way opponents claimed. (California Sunday)
  • Two California women are vying to become Democratic caucus chair: Reps. Barabara Lee and Linda Sanchez. (Los Angeles Times)
  • This state audit cracked up the internet, thanks to revelations that one DMV worker slept for hours a day on the job without getting fired and that a Cal Fire chief made state workers build a tiki room addition to his house. (Sacramento Bee)
  • School districts across California are overwhelmed with pension debt. (CALMatters)
  • What opportunity zones could do for places like Fresno. (The Atlantic)
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