Bush changes nothing

Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Wednesday's San Jose Mercury News:

Get ready for nothing to change.

George Bush has landed in California, sat face-to-face with Gov. Gray Davis and heard firsthand the pitch for price controls on the wholesale cost of electricity.

He wasn't observed walking out of the meeting, cell phone to his ear, barking new marching orders to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Bush and his energy advisers were schooled by independent energy producers; we don't expect them to renounce their roots.

But convictions don't relieve Bush, or more precisely, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), of the obligation to follow the law. The Federal Power Act charges FERC with setting "just and reasonable" rates for electricity.

If he were wise, Bush would find in temporary rate regulation a less direct, but surer, route to his goal of free markets in electricity, because what's happening in California is spooking everyone else.

Those points are emphasized in a letter sent to Bush over the weekend by 10 economists, all but one of whom closely watched the electricity market in California by participating on one of various independent market monitoring panels.

In a dysfunctional market, the economists argue, the law does not permit FERC to just let prices go where they will. Additionally, "FERC's failure to act now will have dire consequences for the state of California and will set back, potentially fatally, the diffusion of competitive electricity markets across the country."

Bush gave no indication Tuesday that he was coming around to that point of view. Quite the contrary. The most he offered to California was an increase of $150 million in federal assistance for low-income energy customers, and a promise to look into why natural gas in California is so much more expensive than elsewhere.

But then the notion that Bush might be coming to the formerly Golden State to publicly recant was fanciful, to say the least. The whole visit, in fact, has been saddled with a significance it did not merit.

Did it take so long (four months and one week since the inauguration!) for Bush to visit this most important of states (the California view) because he wanted to punish us for the drubbing he took here on Election Day? Because he wanted to cripple Davis, possibly a Democratic presidential contender? Because he feared to venture into hostile territory?

Or did he just have better ways to spend his time - like clobbering the Democrats on the tax bill?

In the end, the Bush-Davis conversation merely solidified the conventional wisdom. To get relief from high electricity prices, California will have to look somewhere other than the White House.

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