Talk about trial by fire, or in this case, electric shock.

Two freshman state legislators from L.A., neither of whom even contemplated having to deal with electricity deregulation when they were campaigning last year, are now in the hot seat. They suddenly find themselves on an 18-member panel formed last week to draft solutions to the state's energy crisis.

Long Beach Democrat Jenny Oropeza and Granada Hills Republican Keith Richman were "drafted" last week by Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, to sit on the new Assembly Committee on Energy Costs and Availability. Hertzberg named veteran Los Angeles Democrat Roderick Wright, who has been the chair of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, as chair of the crisis committee.

Thanks in large part to term limits, fully one-third of the members of the committee are freshman legislators who took their oath of office just one month ago. In past sessions, freshman legislators at this stage were still finding out where the rest rooms and elevators are in the state Capitol. But with six-year term limits and so many new faces, there's little time these days for such luxuries.

As a result, the six neophytes on the Energy Costs and Availability committee are being thrust into the most volatile and complicated crisis the state has seen in at least 25 years: the badly malfunctioning deregulated energy markets. Soaring wholesale electricity and natural gas costs and frequent shortages have pushed California to the brink of rolling blackouts while the state's two largest investor-owned utilities, unable to recoup their costs, have teetered on the edge of insolvency.

Yet neither Oropeza nor Richman claim to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the unexpected crisis they now must grapple with.

"Maybe I'm nuts, but I don't feel overwhelmed," Oropeza said. "Sure, it's a bit daunting, but it's also a great opportunity to be part of the solution and I relish the challenge."

Oropeza said that while this issue didn't come up during her primary campaign a year ago, once the Legislature convened last month, she actually put her name in for a seat on the Utilities and Commerce Committee. When she wasn't named to that committee, she figured she might escape dealing with the crisis at least until it came before the full Assembly.

Now, though, Oropeza finds herself taking a crash course in the economics of energy markets and the technical minutiae of electricity generation.

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