A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Why an Edison bailout? Why fear bankruptcy?

October 02, 2001

Even when the entire world was in confusion, thrown into crisis by the terrorist devastation and the more than 5,000 terrorist murders at New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Gov. Gray Davis never stopped concentrating on his prime legislative goal of this year: bailing out the Southern California Edison Co.

Despite months of trying, Davis never managed to convince Californians who live outside the Edison service area surrounding — but not including — Los Angeles, that they had any reason to prevent bankruptcy for a company that had acted with gross irresponsibility.

It isn't just that other Californians can't see anything for them in a bailout; they also saw that despite five months of bankruptcy for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the lights are still on in Northern and Central California, stockholders are doing about as well as before bankruptcy and the B-word now looks like something other than a bugaboo.


The Legislature saw it the same way, with the final, last-gasp version of a state bailout plan defeated by a group of Democratic state senators including some whose districts lie fully within Edison's area. But Davis didn't give up, and so the legislators will be back in Sacramento for a special session soon as the governor tries to ram something down their throats. If they're smart, they'll continue to stand strong against any bailout.

Davis has never revealed his inner motivation for insisting on saving this company and its executives. He knows Edison was a prime backer of the disastrous 1996 deregulation plan that led to its current woes. He knows Edison invested tens of millions of dollars in the successful 1998 campaign to defeat Proposition 9, which aimed to roll back deregulation and would have prevented all this year's energy problems.

Short of reading Davis' mind, it's impossible to be sure why he's been so determined to help this company. But guessing is possible. One reason might be his long and strong personal relationship with Edison CEO John Bryson. In the mid-1970s, while working as chief of staff for then Gov. Jerry Brown, Davis helped recruit Bryson from his job as an idealistic lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council and made him first a member and later chairman of the state Public Utilities Commission.

When Bryson switched from PUC chief to head Edison, one of the two largest utilities he formerly regulated, it was a classic example of the revolving door between government and industry — was the job a reward for past favors?

That didn't bother Davis. Bryson remained Davis' good friend and later became a major donor to Davis political campaigns. An Edison bankruptcy would expose Bryson as a completely incompetent administrator.

Davis might not want that.

But Bryson deserves such exposure, for despite the TV commercials he ran last spring piously protesting that deregulation was forced on him and Edison, anyone who has followed the issue knows better.

And what might be some consequences of an Edison bankruptcy? Some of the Sierra Nevada land and dams the company owns might become public property and eventually wind up as parkland while still producing power. The lights would stay on. Creditors would eventually get most of their debt satisfied. Edison would likely end up continuing to operate the San Onofre nuclear power plant and owning the power lines serving most customers.

In short, it would be no disaster, certainly not enough of a problem to justify state government taking on billions of dollars in new debt to buy power lines or any other major Edison property. Which means if lawmakers are both courageous and perspicacious, they'll make short order of the new Davis special session and refuse to bail out a company whose bad business decisions led to all the problems it has today.

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles