Stopping PG&E’s fraudulent initiative

Pub date September 22, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL A ballot measure that could spell the end of public power in California is headed for either the spring or fall 2010 ballot — and so far, the opposition is missing in action. This is a profoundly important issue, and every elected official, city council, board of supervisors, and utility agency in the Bay Area needs to immediately come out in opposition and start organizing to defeat it.

The source of the proposition, of course, is Pacific Gas and Electric Co. PG&E is facing political wildfires all over the state as communities rebel against bad service and high rates. In Marin County, a community choice aggregation (CCA) plan is moving along, full speed. In San Francisco, CCA is a little slower, but still on track. These efforts could turn two of PG&E’s most profitable territories into public power beachheads. Meanwhile, in San Joaquin County, a public power movement is trying to take over part of PG&E’s service area, and PG&E just spent millions of dollars fighting a similar effort in Davis.

So the utility has decided to fight back — not just in the local communities where activists can beat PG&E back, or in the state Legislature, where the giant company has fewer and fewer friends, but with a ballot initiative that has a misleading name, a misleading political message — and tens of millions of dollars to back it up.

Signature-gatherers are out in force already, collecting names for a measure called "New two-thirds requirement for local public electricity providers." The paid petition crews are describing it as a "right to vote" measure, giving the public a chance to weigh in on government action.

What the measure would really do is require a two-thirds affirmative vote before any public power agency could add new customers, or any local agency could get into the power business. It would force the existing CCA movements to get two-thirds of the local voters to approve their efforts.

That’s an almost impossible standard — particularly when PG&E spends millions to block public power efforts everywhere they appear.

The two-thirds voting requirement is increasingly being assailed as undemocratic. The state Legislature has been paralyzed by its own two-thirds requirement for passing a budget, and there are multiple moves to reduce that threshold. The two-thirds mandate for passing local taxes has been widely blamed for driving cities and counties to the brink of fiscal ruin.

And yet PG&E is trying to add a new, crushing mandate — aimed entirely at snuffing out public power advances. The impact on the state will be enormous. As Megan Rawlins reports on page 8, high PG&E rates and the lack of public power cost the San Francisco economy alone as much as $2.8 billion a year. Multiply that by a factor of 10 or 20, and you see what a devastating financial blow this PG&E move would be to California’s crumbling economy.

So where, exactly, is the opposition?

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi called a meeting last week at the offices of the Utility Reform Network (TURN) to try to get other public power communities involved in a statewide campaign. But it’s been slow going.

That’s not going to work. Every elected agency in the Bay Area needs to get this on the agenda — now. Every city official (starting with Mayor Gavin Newsom, who wants to be governor) and every state official (starting with Attorney General Jerry Brown, who also wants to be governor) needs to loudly and publicly denounce this move, help establish a high-level coalition to beat it back, and start raising money for the campaign.

There may be a legal strategy, too. The law that authorized cities and counties to set up CCAs bars PG&E and other private utilities from interfering with local CCA efforts — and it’s pretty clear that this initiative is designed to do exactly that. City Attorney Dennis Herrera needs to immediately investigate the possibility of suing to get this disastrous initiative off the ballot. *