PG&E attacks consumer choice - Page 2

The ability of cities to switch to public power could be eliminated if a proposed state ballot initiative moves forward

When asked about the PR firm's role in the Taxpayer Right to Vote Act, Larsen acknowledged that they "may be involved as the campaign goes forward," but cautioned that any discussion so far has been preliminary.

The rationale behind the initiative is to protect taxpayers, Larsen said, because CCA programs "are major issues that communities undertake and require millions or billions of public dollars." The proposed initiative, he said, seeks to "ensure that voters — and frankly, their descendents — who will wind up being responsible for these programs have a say." If the measure passes, Larsen added, voters could still approve CCA programs — but with two-thirds of the vote, a supermajority that he contends is "staying in line with many other California requirements."

California Sen. Mark Leno, however, has a very different opinion. "I would hope that Californians would have come to understand that two-thirds vote thresholds are probably more responsible for damage to the state of California in the past 30 years than any other single factor," he said. "To hand a small minority controlling power is anti-democratic. This must be defeated." Leno also said he believes that the initiative would have drastic consequences for CCA programs if it passes.

Meanwhile, local CCA supporters say there is more to this than merely sticking up for taxpayers' rights. If programs like Clean Power SF — the CCA initiative currently being developed in San Francisco — are fully implemented, then PG&E, which makes good money from its monopoly status, would face some actual competition. Naturally, the powerful utility would have an incentive to eliminate the alternative altogether.

Under the current system, PG&E "has to rely on the elected officials to kill CCA, and its much harder ... to do that," says John Rizzo of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. But if the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act is enshrined in state law, "they could just pour in money and spread propaganda. Particularly the two-thirds requirement is just outrageous — it basically makes it impossible" to secure approval for any step toward CCA implementation.

"It's a nasty ballot initiative," Mike Campbell, director of San Francisco's CCA at the Public Utilities Commission, told us. "I think it's clearly aimed at the heart of CCA." Campbell added that while he has been in discussion with SFPUC staff and others involved in hammering out Clean Power SF, he wasn't at liberty to discuss a strategy for fighting the proposed initiative just yet.

Ross Mirkarimi, who chairs the city's Local Agency Formation Commission — the body tasked with working in tandem with the SFPUC to implement San Francisco's CCA — called the proposal "heinous — and yet I expect nothing less from PG&E.

"They can try to win by well-funded misinformation blitzkrieg," Mirkarimi noted. "If they're able to spend $10 million without blinking here in San Francisco [on defeating a public power measure], they're poised to spend tens of millions on this. As a state battleground, this elevates the fight that much more. We have to act in solidarity with other municipalities. We should be well-armed in repudiation of this effort."

There may be ways to attack the initiative in advance. The CCA legislation bars private utilities from seeking to undermine local CCA efforts. Assembly Member Tom Ammiano told us that the Legislature should look at how PG&E could be blocked from mounting a statewide effort to kill CCAs. "I think there's some potential there," he said.

Julian Davis, who chaired the Prop. H campaign for public power last year, said he found the proposal very worrisome. "If you shut down community choice, you're shutting down one of the major vehicles for clean energy," he said.