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President vs. governor over California's power

By Paul Van Slambrouck Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2001


Each gravitates to the political center, and each knows what it's like to run a big state.

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But when it comes to energy policy and the politics that drive it, President George W. Bush, a former governor of Texas, and Gray Davis, current governor of California, dance to radically different tunes.

Their divergent views have created a chasm between the federal government and California, in terms of how to fix an electricity crisis that is affecting other parts of the nation.

The Bush administration has extended an emergency order to help California utilities buy power and natural gas through Feb. 6. And this week, Bush put Vice President Dick Cheney in charge of a cabinet task force to address the state's energy crisis, noting that the issue was a matter of "high concern for the nation." to fix its own mess.

But the help has come with a scolding that the state needs

Some suggest it's partisan politics, with Republican Bush not eager to help a potential 2004 rival in Democrat Davis.

But most political analysts downplay that as a factor, partly because a Davis candidacy is a long shot and because there are political dangers for Bush in antagonizing California.

Rather, analysts say the divergent views held by Bush and Davis are consistent with the philosophies of their respective political parties and are born of the contrasting ways energy cuts as a political issue in their home states.

"Here in Texas, energy is like a religion, and you believe in it and support it," says Robert Stein, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. Texas relies on the energy sector, both oil and power plants, for its economy, jobs, and general well-being, says Mr. Stein. So energy producers hold huge political sway.

In California, by contrast, the energy sector is viewed with "a lot of suspicion," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. Consumers of energy, whether it's oil or electricity, hold greater political clout.

The net result: "There is a polarization on this issue, as there often is between Republicans and Democrats on energy issues," says Pietro Nivola, author of "The Politics of Energy Conservation."

Further, the kind of federal and state cooperation needed to make electricity deregulation work has broken down in the California case, says Paul Joskow of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

What is needed, he says, is a return of "cooperative federalism," a phrase used, oddly enough, to describe how the federal government and the California government worked together in formulating this state's "deregulation" policy in 1996.

The polarization is clearly seen in the issue of price controls. When California restructured its electricity market, it imposed a freeze on retail rates, on the assumption that so-called "deregulation" would likely decrease consumer rates. Instead, wholesale power prices soared last year, leaving the state's utilities with what they say is a bill for buying power that exceeds by $12 billion the price they are allowed to charge. They say bankruptcy is a real prospect.

The Bush administration has made it clear that the cap on retail prices must be lifted, as politically painful as that might be, in order to stabilize the utilities and encourage conservation.