Your rates at work

Because SMUD is a public agency, it can’t spend any ratepayer money on political campaigns.

There are no such rules holding PG&E back. In fact, ultimately all of PG&E’s political-ad budget comes from the ratepayers. Now, most of that money comes out of the profits PG&E makes before paying dividends to its shareholders.

But PG&E recently asked state regulators to add some of the costs of fighting public power at the ballot box directly onto ratepayers’ bills.

In a “rate case” pending before the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E included a $2 million a year line item for “customer retention.”

In its pleadings to the CPUC, the investor-owned utility notes that it has been bedeviled by attempted public-power takeovers in Sacramento, San Francisco and San Joaquin. “Concerned citizens and public officials, most of whom have limited knowledge of the energy industry, naturally turn to PG&E for answers and information,” the company said in CPUC documents.

“It’s outrageous that they are using our money to fight us,” said Mindy Spatt, who’s with the Utility Reform Network, an advocacy group with a long history of battling PG&E. Other PG&E watchers say that “customer retention” won’t survive the CPUC process. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to fight public power on the ratepayer’s dime. Last week, SMUD filed a complaint with the CPUC over political messages being played for customers who have questions about their bill. Callers to PG&E’s customer-service line last week were being greeted with a message that they might be “forced to obtain service from SMUD at what we believe will be higher rates,” and then directed to the PG&E’s anti-annexation political Web site. As of press time, the CPUC had not taken any action against PG&E for the messages.