San Diego Union-Tribune

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25-Jan-2001 Thursday 

State's delegation gets cold shoulder along Capitol Hill 


WASHINGTON -- California lawmakers looking for support from their colleagues on Capitol Hill in dealing with the state's power crisis are finding little sympathy.

The sentiment was summed up yesterday by Sen. Frank Murkowski, the powerful chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: California created the problem, California should fix it.

"California needs to make a good-faith effort to accept its responsibility in this crisis," said the Alaska Republican. "It is then that the federal government can look at its role in providing assistance. But it is not up to the federal government to bail out California for a series of bad decisions."

He blamed the crisis on flaws in the state law that deregulated power markets and a failure to build more power plants.

And while Republicans and Democrats in the state's congressional delegation are scrambling to file legislation that would impose electricity rate caps and hand refunds to consumers, lawmakers from other states are saying Californians should be paying more for power.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., acknowledged that the state's delegation has its work cut out for it.

"We've got to bring them along," she said of her colleagues after unveiling a legislative package yesterday that includes wholesale price caps, a windfall profits tax on electricity generators, tax credits to encourage energy conservation and incentives for states to create electricity reserves.

California's 54-member delegation -- the biggest in Congress -- is not without clout. Many other lawmakers are also well aware that the state's chronic energy woes could hurt the national economy.

Asked about the sink-or-swim philosophy, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said, "I'm not sure that is the best alternative for the people of California."

Still, Republicans control the House and Senate, albeit narrowly, and many of them are loath to intervene aggressively in the California crisis. President Bush has assumed a similar stance.

Western lawmakers have been particularly vocal in the belief that their coastal cousin should be largely left to its own devices.

Murkowski, who plans to hold hearings on the subject, took to the Senate floor yesterday to offer a 30-minute critique of California's problems and prescribe some harsh medicine for consumers there, namely a rate increase.

Calling the state's deregulation law "a policy of ignorance," he recited a litany of its many flaws: freeing wholesale prices while continuing to cap costs paid by consumers; ordering utilities to sell off much of their generating capacity; requiring expensive short-term power purchases; failing to expand generating capacity.

"The chickens have finally come home to roost," said Murkowski, whose committee has jurisdiction over many of the bills California lawmakers have introduced to address the crisis.

While saying "we must all be part of the solution," Murkowski outlined a federal role limited to encouraging the development of new power plants and transmission lines.

Democratic lawmakers from other states have been more open to aggressive federal action, like the cap on wholesale power prices sought by California. Yet they, too, have indicated their patience with California is wearing thin.

Democrats from the Pacific Northwest have been critical of emergency orders from the Energy Department that require power generators and gas companies in their states to continue supplying nearly bankrupt California utilities. They also complain that their constituents are seeing bigger rate increases than Californians.

Nine Democratic House members from Washington and Oregon argued for guarantees from California in a recent letter to Gov. Gray Davis.

"We believe that to ensure repayment to Northwest utilities forced under federal mandate to sell to California utilities, either the California Legislature should offer a guarantee of repayment, or the California Public Utility Commission . . . should adjust (consumer) rates accordingly," they wrote.

Davis has been reluctant to endorse either step.

The Bush administration has warned that the two-week extension of the emergency order it granted Tuesday will be the last.

California lawmakers are hopeful that they can convince their colleagues of the severity of the crisis and that a bigger federal role in managing it is warranted.

"I think it's going to be difficult," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon. "But I think it's something we need to do."