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PG&E, paint companies among top California lobbying spenders

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SACRAMENTO — Fights over who is financially liable for wildfire damage and lead-paint cleanup sparked millions of dollars in lobbying at the California Capitol from April through June, with a utility giant and paint companies spending dramatically more than usual to advance their positions.

Groups must disclose how much they spend on lobbyists and other activities to influence California policy. The spending by the utilities comes as they are asking the Legislature to reduce their liability for wildfires sparked by their equipment, while the paint companies' spending reflects an effort to influence lawmakers on issues related to lead paint cleanup.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spent more lobbying in California than any other entity in the last quarter, according to reports filed with the state ahead of a Tuesday deadline. It dropped more than $1.7 million, nearly three times as much as it spent the previous quarter. Most of that money went to lobbying on wildfire issues.

Up from the Ashes, a group representing people who lost homes in fires, spent more than half a million dollars lobbying the Legislature to keep utilities like PG&E on the hook for the damage. Patrick McCallum, a lobbyist who lost his home in last October's wine country fires, said the group was formed earlier this year to counter lobbying efforts by PG&E.

The spending push came as lawmakers began discussing whether to reduce utilities' liability for future fire damage. PG&E may have to pay billions of dollars to cover damage from devastating fires in California last year.

Two other large utilities — the parent companies of Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric — also ranked in the top 20 spenders on lobbying last quarter. Both reported lobbying on wildfire liability.

PG&E is asking policy makers to change a California law that holds it almost entirely responsible for wildfire damage even if it follows safety rules. Those who want to change the law fear utilities could go bankrupt or significantly raise prices as climate change makes California wildfires even more severe.

"This is the biggest issue facing our company today, and it's a major challenge facing everyone in California," PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said. "We really have to all work together to find comprehensive solutions."

At a news conference Wednesday about wildfires currently blazing across the state, Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledged the fierce lobbying on the utilities' liability.

"My goal was to try to find a reasonable balance that would reward players including utilities for doing the right thing but make them liable when they didn't," said Brown, a key player in the wildfire liability discussions. "There's a lot of people who can tee off on their particular interests, but we want the Legislature to represent all the people and sift through the various claims."

After PG&E, an oil industry trade group was the second biggest spender. The Western States Petroleum Association dropped $1.6 million to influence state policy last quarter.

Conagra and Sherwin-Williams also ranked in the top five lobbying spenders this quarter. They spent roughly $1 million each as they attempted to reduce their liability for lead paint in California buildings in the wake of a court decision that declared lead paint to be a public nuisance and required the companies to pay for cleanup. The companies' spending from April through June represented a dramatic jump from previous quarters, coinciding with their efforts to strike a deal with lawmakers over a November ballot measure they financed to limit their liability for the cleanup of lead paint. The companies pulled the measure and lawmakers agreed to back off of several bills they wrote to ensure the companies were held responsible for lead paint in California homes.

The companies' increased lobbying last quarter reflected increased activity in the Legislature on those bills, said Tony Dias, a lawyer for Sherwin-Williams.

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Associated Press writer Don Thompson contributed to this report.