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Read about the latest decisions at the state Capitol and how they impact your life (Fridays)
An exchange featuring Sen. Ben Hueso illuminates a big debate over wildfires, San Diego’s city attorney supports a bill to remove ICE from courthouses and more in our weekly roundup of news from Sacramento.
All summer long, there’s been a steady stream of news about impossibly long lines at DMVs across the state.
The DMV recently expanded Saturday hours to try to cut down the delays, and as lawmakers returned from summer recess, they announced plans to try and deal with the problem.
One was Senate Republican leader Pat Bates. She announced urgency legislation this week “that will give an additional 90 days on all license renewals set to expire this year. Her bill will also extend the deadline for new Californians to register their out-of-state cars,” according to a statement from her office.
Her office did not respond to requests for more details about the bill.
The Legislature also heard about the issue in a special hearing Tuesday.
DMV Director Jean Shiamoto “blamed the delays on three new projects: the federal ‘Real ID’ program, a queueing system and an electronic driver’s license application,” according to Capitol Public Radio.
“Everybody is frustrated with the experiences they’ve been having, and clearly it’s gotten much worse this year,” Democratic Assemblyman Marc Berman said during the hearing. “The DMV is the No. 1 interaction that our constituents have with state government in their lives, which makes it really important. … It’s critically important that we identify what went wrong, but also what can we do to fix it.”
It came as a big surprise, then, when three Democratic senators voted against a request for an audit of DMV wait times.
When Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins was asked about the rejection of the audit at a press event, she declined to address the issue, saying she hadn’t seen the debate, according to a reporter. Even after she’d had time to assess the issue, Atkins released a statement that astoundingly didn’t even mention the audit:
“I’m encouraged by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) moving quickly to address the long delays Californians are experiencing. In particular, the Legislature recently approved $16.6 million to hire 230 employees across California. This is in addition to multiple steps that were recently taken to reduce wait times, such as: Adding Saturday office hours in the most impacted communities; opening certain field offices an hour earlier, four days a week; and, redirecting almost 300 DMV headquarters employees to the busiest field offices. However, we must do better and we expect more. We will work with the Administration and the DMV to ensure they have what they need to get the job done quickly and efficiently.”
Republicans sense they have a winning issue. While the Legislature deals with some complex and abstract topics, long lines at the DMV is not one of those.
John Cox, who’s running for governor, quickly started using the audit rejection in campaign messages and in interviews.
“Fixing the DMV is not a partisan issue, but a California issue affecting people who have to spend an entire day at a DMV office to renew a driver’s license or register a car,” Bates said in a statement. “What is it going to take to audit the DMV? They deserve to know what went wrong. They deserve to know what needs to be done to fix it. They deserve a DMV that works. I supported the request for an audit and I’m disappointed that the request failed to pass. Californians deserve better.”
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott voiced support this week for a bill by Sen. Ricardo Lara that would prevent the civil arrest or service of process of anyone going to or from a court proceeding – a measure aimed at preventing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers from arresting people who are victims of or witnesses to a crime.
“This overreach of the federal government into our state and local court systems has the potential to deny individuals their right to due process, deter crime victims from seeking protections and justice, and discourage witnesses from assisting with important criminal proceedings,” Elliott wrote in a letter to Lara.
Elliott “is concerned about the impact that ICE courthouse arrests could have on crime victims seeking justice,” said Hilary Nemchick, a spokeswoman for Elliott. “There have been instances where victims of domestic violence have been arrested when going to court to testify or obtain orders of protection against their abusers. These arrests can deter other victims from coming forward to seek help from the courts, having a chilling effect on the fair administration of justice.”
Bills from San Diego lawmakers that passed the Legislature this week and move on to Gov. Jerry Brown include:
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins appointed Nicole Capretz, head of San Diego’s nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, to the state’s Strategic Growth Council. The council, formed in 2008, helps spend money coming from the state’s cap-and-trade program. So far, it’s spent over $775 million on projects related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture, health and housing.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is working to revive a controversial plan to tax water customers across the state.
The governor and others have been pushing to add a new $1 fee to water bills to help provide safe drinking water to more than 300,000 Californians in mostly rural areas.
A new version of the tax could pop back up in the next few days. It would make the fee a “voluntary donation” by allowing customers to opt out of paying it.
The tax is controversial among some water agency officials because it would be taking money from customers in some parts of the state – generally the wealthier urban areas – and sending it to other areas of the state to subsidize other water agencies’ services.
The idea of optional programs is not new: The city of San Diego allows customers to donate to a program to help low-income residents pay their water bills, though that program is opt-in, not opt-out.
Lawmakers are struggling to figure out how to deal with the liability that power companies have following wildfires. Right now, companies are strictly liable for property damage if their equipment helped caused a fire under a legal principal known as “inverse condemnation.” 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.
Sen. Ben Hueso had a fascinating exchange with John Fiske from Consumer Attorneys of California during a hearing this week. Hueso seemed inclined to blame nature and climate change for more fires, while Fiske pushed the idea that in most cases utilities themselves are the ultimate cause of fires because “man is creating the risk with infrastructure.”
Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of that exchange, which tees up core issues in this debate:
Fiske: Climate change may exacerbate the situation, which is all the more reason why we need inverse condemnation to reduce that risk, so that PG&E asks itself: Is our system designed and used in a way that reduces that risk in light of climate change?
Hueso: Don’t you think we’re here because of climate change? Don’t you think climate change has triggered an enormous amount of fires and a drought that has decimated 120 million trees, that has created more fuel than the state or anyone, including a utility or a property owner, can manage?
Fiske: I think we’re here today at this hearing because PG&E is asking for some sort of bailout. I think that’s why we’re here today for this hearing. I don’t think we’re here today because of overall climate change.
Hueso: The question was: Is climate change causing this?
Fiske: No, sir, no. Climate change does not cause and start wildfires.
As the Los Angeles Times, with more nuance, summarized the causes, “California’s current crop of deadly fires has not been linked to sparks caused by power lines or other equipment, attributed instead to a vehicle mishap and alleged arson, among other things. Last year’s fires, however, saw a strong linkage to the utilities.”