Stop PG&E’s alarming ballot measure

Pub date June 16, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL One of the greatest threats to public power in a generation is quietly working its way toward the California ballot.

As Rebecca Bowe reports on page 12, a proposed initiative that would require two-thirds of the voters to approve any sort of public electricity measure, including community choice aggregation (CCA), has been submitted to the state attorney general’s office. And Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s fingerprints are all over it.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that this measure is designed to derail successful CCA efforts in places like Marin County and San Francisco, where the supervisors are moving forward to set up the equivalent of a buyer’s co-op for electricity. A San Francisco CCA would offer lower costs and much greener power — and would give the city far more control over its energy future.

The measure could also hamper the efforts of existing public power agencies to expand their territories or offer service to new customers.

The state Legislature approved a bill back in 2002 allowing California cities to replace private utility service with CCAs — and the bill included language barring PG&E and the other giant electricity companies in the state from spending money to undermine CCA efforts. In other words, it’s illegal for PG&E to use its immense resources and lobbying clout to try to block San Francisco’s efforts.

And PG&E has spent tens of millions of dollars in San Francisco, Davis, and elsewhere trying to block public-power programs.

So now the utility is going to the state ballot, where a campaign with enough money on an issue that’s sufficiently complicated can often pass. The law firm that filed the initiative papers, Neilsen Merksama (a political powerhouse that represents, among others, PG&E) won’t divulge much about the funding sources — except to say that the filing fee came from … PG&E. So there’s little doubt the measure will have the funds it needs to gather more than 600,000 signatures and mount a campaign of lies and disinformation.

That’s why supporters of CCAs and public power need to rally, now, to start planning to defeat this thing.

Mustering a two-thirds majority at the ballot for almost anything is difficult. Even in liberal San Francisco, bond measures requiring a two-thirds vote often pass only narrowly — and that’s if there’s no opposition. Even the most popular sorts of measures — say, for funding schools or libraries — can go down to defeat if anyone mounts serious opposition.

And PG&E, with its unlimited resources, would have the ability to kill the current CCA plans — or anything in the future that threatens the company’s illegal monopoly.

The two-thirds majority requirement is undemocratic and has paralyzed state government. Two-thirds mandates for new tax measures have made it almost impossible for cities and counties in this state to raise new revenue, even in desperate times like these.

The San Francisco supervisors need to immediately pass a resolution opposing the measure. Assembly Member Tom Ammiano and state Sen. Mark Leno have told us they oppose it, and they should see if there’s any way the Legislature can add language to the CCA bill to bar regulated utilities from spending money to undermine public power statewide. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission should be talking to public power agencies all over the state and helping organize the opposition. If the measure makes it onto the ballot, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and every other municipal utility agency in the state will need to raise money — millions — and marshal forces against it.

This is a very serious threat, and the time to start defusing it is now. *

P.S.: Mayor Newsom has nominated Anson Moran, the former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, for a seat on the commission. This is a terrible idea. Moran had a notoriously anti-public power record when he was running the agency. In fact, in 1994, he tried to stop the city from bidding on the lucrative contract to supply electricity to the Presidio, saying that going up against PG&E would be "too political." And although he later said he would be willing to bid on the contract, he privately urged then-Mayor Frank Jordan to veto then-Sup. Angela Alioto’s measure pushing for public power at the Presidio. With all the battles over CCA and public power, the last thing the city needs is a PG&E call-up vote on the PUC. The Rules Committee hears the nomination June 18, and should vote to reject him.