PG&E’s greed backfires

Pub date June 15, 2010

EDITORIAL The single most important number to come out of San Francisco on election night was this: 67.49 percent. That’s how many people in this city voted against Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s monopoly measure, Proposition 16. It’s a statistic that ought to be posted somewhere on a wall at City Hall to remind everyone in local government that the voters sided overwhelmingly against PG&E and in favor of a public option for local electricity.

It’s a landmark victory. On the state level, the defeat of Prop. 16 showed that unlimited corporate spending on a ballot initiative doesn’t guarantee victory, that an underfunded coalition can defeat a giant utility — and that a majority of those in PG&E’s own service area are unhappy with their electricity provider. Public power activists all over the state should take this as a signal that PG&E, and its once-formidable political clout, are on the wane.

In San Francisco — the only city in the nation with a legal mandate for public power — the vote was the most lopsided of any California county. It was the strongest local mandate for public power since the passage of the Raker Act in 1913.

That should be a huge boost for the city’s community choice aggregation (CCA) program. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who has been leading the fight for CCA, was pushing hard to get a contract signed before the June 8 vote; like a lot of observers, he feared that PG&E’s vast war chest would overwhelm the opposition. But now that Prop. 16 is dead — and nothing like it will be back in the near future, if at all — the city has a bit of a breather.

That doesn’t mean all work on the contract should slow down. The San Francisco PUC has been mucking around with this deal for more than a year, and needs to bring it to a close. And the city needs to start preparing to answer PG&E’s propaganda campaign with a concerted effort — from the mayor’s office on down — to remind San Franciscans that CCA power will be greener, safer, and in the long run, cheaper than the energy we’re now forced to buy from PG&E.

Any San Francisco politician who stands with PG&E and opposes CCA will do so at his or her peril.

And while San Francisco is moving to implement a modest public power program, state Sen. Mark Leno is moving in Sacramento to limit PG&E’s ability to try another Prop. 16 move — or to spend tens of millions of dollars trying to block local power initiatives. Leno has introduced a bill that would limit the utility’s ability to use ratepayer money on political or public relations campaigns.

The measure doesn’t have a number yet, but the language is brilliant. It directs the California Public Utilities Commission to disallow any political spending that PG&E tries to add into its regulated rates. And since the company has no source of income other that the money it gets from ratepayers, the impact would be to deny PG&E the ability to spend money working against the interests of ratepayers and the public.

"Over the past 10 years, PG&E has probably spent $150 million on political campaigns — and that’s money that came from the ratepayers," Leno said. "This bill is to protect ratepayers."

PG&E will howl about its First Amendment rights — and, indeed, the Supreme Court has of late given corporations who want to influence political campaigns and legislative issues a good bit of leeway. But the fact remains that PG&E is a regulated utility in California, and the state has every right to determine how much the company can charge its customers and to limit how that money is used.

Leno’s bill, of course, could radically change local politics. If PG&E couldn’t spend millions to defeat public power measures, the city would have far more options — and activists should be thinking about how a future campaign to take over the company’s infrastructure might work.

The Board of Supervisors should pass a resolution endorsing Leno’s bill, and the coalition that worked to defeat Prop. 16 should be working to get other cities and counties around the state to sign on.

PG&E’s greed in putting Prop. 16 on the ballot is starting to backfire — and it can’t happen too soon.