When the state Lands Commission took up the question of whether to allow a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal to run pipelines across tidelands and beaches near Oxnard, more than 2,000 highly vocal citizens turned out to protest and each one got a chance to speak.
But when the state Public Utilities Commission made the key decision without which no LNG firms would be pushing to enter the California market, no one heard from the public. No evidence was taken, either. Instead, the Commission on its own ruled that California utilities can forego as much as one-quarter of the domestic natural gas that now comes here and substitute foreign-source LNG for it.
The Commission’s justification for its decision was that California allegedly faces an impending natural gas shortage, which can be solved by LNG – gas supercooled to a liquid state and then shipped here. Of course, had there been a public hearing, someone might have popped the entire LNG balloon by pointing out that you don’t solve an impending shortage of anything by giving up one-fourth of your existing supply.
A public hearing might also have avoided a major intra-government lawsuit now in progress, one which sees the South Coast Air Quality Management District – anti-smog arbiter for Los Angeles, Orange, and much of Riverside and San Bernardino counties – suing to overturn that PUC ruling. The smog-control district argues LNG would cause increased air pollution because of its slightly different chemical composition from domestic supplies coming from Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado.
Why, also, were there no public hearings when state legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last spring hustled through a $15 billion prison construction bond issue? It will cost taxpayers an average of $1 billion per year for 30 years to pay off those bonds, including interest, and they had absolutely no voice in the matter.
Similarly, while legislators did hold hearings on a Democratic-inspired plan for a single-payer health insurance system, not even during the autumn special legislative session were there any on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan for universal health coverage or the Democratic alternative to it. Surely, there’s been plenty of time to hold hearings – Schwarzenegger first proposed his plan in his state of the state speech last January and he’s staged numerous dog-and-pony shows since then to promote it.
Nor have there been public hearings on the key water policy issues lawmakers considered during the same special session.
Politicians sometimes say public hearings are useless, that virtually no one turns out for them except parties with a direct financial interest in the outcome of an issue.
But in the case of water and universal health care, that includes everyone.
Besides, recent history indicates Californians turn out in droves when they get enough advance notice of hearings. Many are happy to participate and not merely leave matters to elected officials beholden to special interest donors.
One hearing conducted in June by Democratic state Sen. Joe Simitian of Palo Alto drew more than 300 pet owners distraught over a plan to require all dogs and cats over four months of age to be spayed or neutered unless the owner gets a permit exempting them. The 300 howled for five hours over this plan, which subsequently died in committee – in part because of their opposition.
Citizens have turned out in increasing numbers for the last several years on city matters, too, often offering intelligent ideas that have sometimes been adopted by city councils engaged in land-use planning and other key local decision-making.
So why do some state officials try to avoid public hearings on key, expensive items like the prison bonds?
Could it be that Schwarzenegger, for one, is more comfortable taking his ideas to canned “town hall” meetings with pre-selected participants and to banquet rooms full of health insurance executives than meeting with the hoi polloi?
The bottom line: While some agencies and lawmakers still hold public hearings on important issues, Schwarzenegger and much of the Legislature appear more comfortable deciding key issues among themselves and their big campaign donors.
It’s a lot easier on the nerves to attend a “Big Five” meeting of Sacramento big shots in the Schwarzenegger smoking tent than going out to a totally unscripted event in an auditorium where everyone can come and have his or her say.
But it doesn’t tell you what gets the people excited and involved, the way public hearings can.