PG&E vs. democracy

PG&E just doubled down on its effort to stop public power in the state. According to campaign-finance documents filed with the California secretary of state, on January 22, the for-profit utility wrote a $3 million check to fund Proposition 16, the so-called “Taxpayers Right to Vote Act,” which will be appearing on your June ballot.

It really should be called the “Corporate Right to Perpetual Monopoly Act.” The measure will make it nearly impossible for public utilities, like Sacramento Municipal Utility District, to expand into PG&E territory, or for upstart local governments to start new public power agencies or even to pool their resources to buy cheaper or greener energy directly from electricity generators.

The latest cash infusion is on top of the $3.5 million PG&E already spent, just to gather signatures and qualify its latest power grab for the ballot. That $6 million will probably seem like chump change by the time this thing is over.

Some have called the measure the “final nail in the coffin” for public power and the ability for local governments to compete with PG&E in California (see “PG&E’s power trip”; SN&R Frontlines; July 23, 2009). It would amend the state constitution to require a two-thirds approval from voters any time a public utility seeks to expand, or when locals try to form a public utility.

Bites isn’t aware of any public utility in the state that was formed or expanded without a public vote. Never mind that state law requires private utilities to be generously reimbursed for their power lines and equipment and property easements whenever a public utility starts up. Never mind that public utilities, like SMUD, are almost always cheaper for ratepayers than the corporate power companies, and are always always more democratically run. PG&E just wants to protect your right to vote.

A big chunk of PG&E’s campaign money—$210,000 reported so far has gone to pay local campaign consultants Townsend Raimundo Besler & Usher for their expertise in getting taxpayers to vote against their own interests.

Locals will recall that company helped PG&E beat back an attempt in 2006 by cities in Yolo County to join SMUD, which has historically had much lower rates than PG&E.

PG&E spent more than $11 million on that election, shattering local campaign-finance records. Thanks to Townsend Raimundo’s aggressive campaign, SMUD’s annexation bid was soundly rejected by Sacramento County voters, who feared that their rates would go up if their Yolo neighbors got in on the public action. In Yolo County the vote was much closer, losing by just 1 percent.

Townsend is also the political consultant who recruited former NBA

star and charter-school tycoon Kevin Johnson to run for mayor, and he has a long relationship with former Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas.

Probably not entirely coincidentally, Blanas just penned a long Op-Ed in The Sacramento Bee defending the PG&E power play. Thanks, Big Lou, way to stick up for local government. (Bites assumes the Bee checked to make sure Blanas wasn’t on the PG&E or Townsend Raimundo payroll before accepting his essay.)

Local democrats have been more sensible. Darrell Steinberg—our state senator and current Senate president pro tem—last month got seven other state senators to sign on to a letter blasting PG&E’s proposal.

“To use the initiative process to pursue PG&E’s self-interests … calls into question your company’s integrity,” Steinberg wrote.

PG&E’s response to the letter? Well, that additional $3 million pretty much says it all.