They originally intended to debate citywide issues before an urbane Westside audience, but three of the mayoral candidates ended up participating in a raucous student protest instead.

Last week's debate among the six leading contenders for L.A. mayor, which was scheduled for Wednesday evening, March 14, at UCLA's Royce Hall, was cancelled at the last minute as hundreds of students protesting the University of California's affirmative action stance occupied the concert hall. Some 24 hours earlier, the UC Board of Regents, which was meeting at UCLA, removed from its agenda an item to reconsider a previous decision to step away from affirmative action.

But three of the mayoral candidates showed up anyway and were quick to capitalize on the opportunity. When this columnist who was supposed to be on the debate media panel arrived, Rep. Xavier Becerra was onstage addressing the students.

"This is the real debate; this is real democracy," Becerra exclaimed as students cheered and red "Becerra for Neighborhoods" signs were raised. "I support you in your effort for equal rights."

Former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union organizer and one-time member of the UC Board of Regents, was actually summoned by university officials to try to mediate between the students and the regents. He, too, addressed the students and then, in front of television cameras, talked to UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale.

City Councilman Joel Wachs also showed up, saying he supports the right of the students to protest. Wachs received his political initiation as UCLA student body president in the 1960s, during the height of the student protest movement.

As for the debate itself, the debate organizers late last week were furiously working to reschedule it. Stay tuned

Legislator Attacks Gov. Davis

As the state's energy crisis drags on, the strain and frustration are beginning to show, even within the Democratic Party. Take for instance a local appearance on March 9 by state Assemblyman Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles. Wright chairs the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee and has had the unenviable task of playing gatekeeper for much of the legislation to fix the mess left by the state's failed deregulation scheme.

Wright has for months advocated raising electricity rates so that Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric could recoup some of the cost of buying wholesale power, which has increased nearly 10-fold over the past year.

But Gov. Gray Davis has steadfastly opposed this, fearful that he will be tagged as the governor who saddled consumers with higher electricity bills. Such talk could scotch any hopes of him running for President.

In response to a question on Davis' role at the March 9 forum, Wright blasted Davis and his administration for not considering single-digit rate increases for customers of Edison and PG & E; in the early stages of the crisis last July and August. That was shortly after the electricity market was deregulated in San Diego and people there saw their bills triple. It's also when Edison and PG & E; were starting to rack up debts at a rate of $1 billion a month each.

"If we had addressed this in July, when Edison and PG & E; still had cash in the bank, we would not have been faced with the magnitude of crisis we see now," Wright said. "If we had bought contracts in July, at between 4.5 and 6.5 cents a kilowatt-hour, yes, that would have necessitated a slight rate increase, but it would have enabled us to have supply on hand."

Wright went on: "The Governor should have said, 'Whoa, look at what's happening in San Diego as their power bills go through the roof. I need to do something before what happens there rolls over to the other utilities.'

"I actually said to the Governor and the Public Utilities Commission (who are all Davis appointees), 'You need to take steps today to avert this.' But they were concerned about getting into long-term contracts that would be too high," he continued.

"If there had been adults around the Governor's office and the PUC, they would have looked at this and gone ahead and secured that power," Wright said. "Instead, now they're signing long-term contracts at much higher prices."

Split Roll Tax

Back in the fall, Assemblyman Bill Leonard, R-Rancho Cucamonga, said he was mulling over whether to introduce a bill that would split off business properties from the state tax rolls subject to Proposition 13. Such a move could stick businesses with an additional $1 billion in property taxes and even the prospect of it raised fierce opposition from business groups.

At the time, Leonard said he was concerned that businesses' share of the overall property tax burden was declining (from 66 percent to 60 percent in 10 years). And this was anathema to Leonard, who was one of the "Prop. 13 babies" who entered the Legislature right after its 1978 passage on a platform of reducing residential property tax rates.

On Feb. 23, the last day to introduce bills this session, Leonard unveiled his split roll bill, AB 1013. As promised, it mostly goes after corporate property owners by reassessing corporate property whenever 50 percent or more of a corporation's stock cumulatively changes hands.

Complicating matters now, of course, is the energy crisis. With lawmakers so preoccupied with getting the state out of its electricity deregulation fiasco, there will be little time to consider such a dramatic change to the state's tax code this session. On the other hand, Leonard's bill could bring an extra $1 billion into the state's treasury, which is fast being depleted by the state's power purchases.

Staff reporter Howard Fine can be contacted by phone at (323) 549-5225 ext. 227, or by e-mail at hfine@labusinessjournal.com.

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