Last guy out flip off the switch

Fellow journalist and Northern Californian Aaron Kiess called the other day. "How do you like living in a third-world country?" he asks.

My Texas brother-in-law could not stop laughing when he called to inquire: "How many rolling blackouts have y'all had today."

California has become the political laughingstock of America. Not even the new magnanimous, consensus-building President George Bush is willing to help. California's power crisis is for Californians to solve, he says. What do you expect him to say? California went to Gore.

California's governor Gray Davis spent $400 million of taxpayer cash to keep the lights on - for maybe two weeks. Someone has proposed issuing $10 billion in bonds to bail out the utilities - for how long? Month and a half?

The state's two utilities are somewhere between $11 billion and $12 billion in debt. Their credit ratings have been reclassified as deadbeat. Bankruptcy is at hand.

And, now lawmakers want to take control of the state's hydroelectric plants owned by the two public utility giants. Not sure how that will solve the power crisis. One report said by doing that it would enable the state to use its borrowing power to ensure a steady power supply while giving power companies time to pay down a debt that is going up by billions of dollars a week. May be the idea is to put the power plants up as collateral. At the rate the power crisis is being resolved, chances are good the powerhouse doors at those hydroelectric dams may soon hear the sound of the repossesser's knock.

Gov. Davis is taking the political fall for deregulation, even though it was his predecessor, Pete Wilson, former U.S. senator and San Diego mayor, who championed deregulation. Wilson continues to tout it, blaming today's crisis on the onerous regulatory process of building new power plants.

Wilson said deregulation works. Hope the lights stay on long enough to hold the party celebrating that success.

The Republican Wilson said the Democrat Davis could solve the problem by "accelerating" the construction of the power plants. There are 17 on the drawing boards or under construction. Translation: Tell radical environmentalists to take a hike. Not likely from Davis.

Wilson also was quoted by CNN as saying the problem was brought by the unforeseen growth of the state's population. How could anyone not expect California's to grow?

So far the impact the electricity crisis on agriculture has been minimal. Dairymen have suffered most because they relay on electricity to run their dairies.

Central San Joaquin Valley citrus growers avoided major damage from the rolling blackouts. It was below freezing in mid-January. Growers were forced to run electric wind machines and water to protect 70 percent of the navel orange crop and the entire 2001 Valencia crop. Fortunately, temperatures did not reach critical lows for long periods of time.

Governors from some Western states are saying what is happening in California will soon happen elsewhere in the West unless corrective actions are taken. Others say California brought on its own problems by send power generators across state line rather than deal at home with the environmentalists trying to stop power plants.

There are no simply answers or solutions to California's bewildering electricity crisis. The state's 32 million people are looking to a centrist governor many say lacks the political fortitude to deal aggressively with the crisis.

And, the state's legislative bodies are replete with lawmakers there largely due to term limits. In many cases they lack the political savvy to aggressively deal with the crisis and are at the mercy of veteran lobbyists to find solutions.

The last guy out of California flip the light switch. Won't do any good, but it is the gesture that counts.

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