Just warming up

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is facing a serious challenge to its monopoly in Yolo County. So, the big electric utility has done what it usually does when it finds itself in a tight spot—whipped out the cash. Lots and lots of cash.

The company is backing Measure H, on this Thursday’s ballot in Sacramento County. The measure would change the rules governing the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), making it more difficult for the publicly owned utility to expand its operations and offer electricity to ratepayers in PG&E territory. It would require that a majority of voters in existing SMUD territory approve any additional annexations by SMUD.

While the TV commercials and mailers in support of Measure H are sponsored by “The Coalition for Reliable and Affordable Electricity” and make reference to homeowners, small business owners and community organizations, it’s only PG&E writing the checks.

And they are huge checks. PG&E plowed in a whopping $2 million just in the last two months, in order to pass Measure H.

Residents in Sacramento County and parts of Yolo County are already scheduled to vote in November on whether SMUD should break up PG&E’s monopoly in Yolo County and begin offering electricity services to customers in Woodland, Davis and West Sacramento—where electricity customers pay significantly higher electric rates than ratepayers in SMUD territory.

Altogether, PG&E has contributed $2.8 million since late 2005 to the campaign to stop public power in Yolo. That’s big money even for PG&E. In 2002, the company spent a little more than $2 million to defeat a public power initiative at the polls in San Francisco. The nearly $3 million PG&E has spent here comes a full six months before the real battle in November, when voters decide PG&E’s fate at the polls.

Most of the PG&E money went to campaign consultants and to buy airtime on local TV and radio stations. So far, PG&E has paid $165,000 to Stan Atkinson, a former TV newsman and local celebrity, for appearing in local television commercials attacking SMUD’s annexation bid.

Because SMUD is a not-for-profit public agency, it is not allowed to spend money on political campaigns.

—Cosmo Garvin

False neutral

The person on the phone presents an argument that sounds perfectly plausible. Big bad companies such as Microsoft and Google are eating up the Internet’s bandwidth. Shouldn’t they have to pay for that? The only problem is that the person on the other end of the line is working for companies that are equally big and arguably worse: AT&T, Verizon and Bell South, the handful of telecom giants that currently control virtually all high-speed Internet access in the United States.

At issue is Internet neutrality, a concept currently being debated in Congress. In a nutshell, Internet neutrality ensures that all content providers have an equal opportunity to place their content on the Web free of charge. The big telecom companies don’t like it and are spending millions to defeat it—from lobbying legislators to expensive telephone campaigns and animated commercials that appear on cash-starved blogs.

Net-neutrality supporters such as Save the Internet claim that such fees will limit the Web’s content to the companies that can afford to pay, restricting content and destroying the democratic spirit of the Internet community. So far, 732 companies have joined Save the Internet’s coalition in support of Net neutrality, including Sacramento-based nonprofit Californians Against Waste, which depends on free access to keep in touch with subscribers and its donor base. More than 700,000 have signed the coalition’s petition.

The coalition, formed in April, claimed its first victory May 24 when the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation supporting Net neutrality. The issue will soon be debated in the full House and Senate. For more information on Internet neutrality, go to www.savetheinternet.com.

—R.V. Scheide