Quake Commission Jeopardized by Veto

Bill funding activities shot down by governor
Gilroy – The independent commission charged with protecting Californians from devastating earthquake damage is in jeopardy now that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill funding its activities.

Assembly Bill 1347 would have extended through 2013 a 7-cent property insurance premium used to fund the California Seismic Safety Commission, which operates independently of the state government on about $900,000 a year.

Schwarzenegger said in a written statement that he vetoed the bill because the commission’s functions are “duplicative of … the California Building Standards Commission and the Division of State Architect,” and that it’s premature to extend it’s funding.

But the head of the commission said Wednesday that the body plays a unique role in safeguarding California from earthquakes, and said the veto endangers Californians at a time when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have underscored the importance of preparing for natural disasters.

“At the minimum it’s surprising. There does not seem to be a rationale for doing it this week,” commissioner Lawrence Klein said. “I think we’re the most cost-effective commission the state has. We work for almost nothing. What consultants would do for hundreds of dollars an hour, we do for a hundred dollars a month.”

Klein also said that the veto imperils more than $5 million in funding earmarked for earthquake research because it now appears the agency won’t exist after June 2007.

One of the commission’s major projects is an inventory of more than 25,400 unreinforced masonry buildings in California. To date, more than 17,000 of those buildings have been torn down or retrofitted. There are 27 such buildings in downtown Gilroy. The commission also prepares educational pamphlets for home and business owners and helped push through stronger building standards for schools.

The commission was established in 1974 and was financed by the state until 2003, when the legislature passed a law to fund it through insurance premiums until June 2007. Sam Sorich, president of the Association of California Insurance Companies, said his group advised the governor to veto the new bill.

“For the individual homeowner, admittedly, it’s not a lot of money, but it’s really a case of the principle,” Sorich said of the 7-cent premium. “We should not be the tax collector for the state. It’s not fair that the burden is put on our customers when it should be shared by all citizens.”

Sorich conceded that the commission’s activities help lower insurance premiums and said his group did not advise the governor that the agency is unnecessary.

The seismic safety commission is responsible for making recommendations to the legislature on seismic standards and maintaining a state earthquake mitigation plan to attract federal dollars for earthquake research and programs.

The commission is staffed by 15 governor appointees and two legislative representatives. Susan Tubessing, executive director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland, said the veto signals confusion from the governor, who recently appointed five commissioners to the board. She said it could damage the state’s business environment if California is viewed as a less-safe place.

“We don’t know what message the governor is sending,” Tubessing said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t mean the commission won’t exist. It’s an absolutely critical commission. It is widely respected and has done great work. Why would he threaten a program that is not a burden on the state?”

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