Buying power - Page 4

How PG&E and Mercury Insurance are spending millions to try to trick Californians into voting for corporate interests

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GUARDIAN ILLUSTRATION BY DEVON DOSS

As the utility seeks to alter the state constitution with Prop. 16, it is also boldly pursuing a rate hike of roughly 20 percent by 2011. Winning the Prop. 16 campaign could trigger an economic boon for PG&E since it would dramatically decrease the potential for municipal competitors to spring up and win over customers with lower rates, cleaner power, and more reliable service. Locking in such a monopoly would leave consumers with little choice but to endure rate hikes.

If Prop. 16 fails, however, the utility company's financial outlook will be dicey. If twin efforts at green, community choice aggregation (CCA) programs moving steadily forward in San Francisco and Marin County prove successful, PG&E could see a depletion of its customer base from those territories and any other municipalities that follow suit.

What this means is that the stakes are high — and PG&E is prepared to pull out every trick in the book to win the Yes on 16 campaign. And yes, there actually is a playbook for how to use deceptive tactics to win these campaigns, a copy of which was obtained by the Guardian.

 

PG&E'S PROPAGANDA MANUAL

The San Francisco public relations firm Solem & Associates, which has worked with PG&E for nearly 30 years, has produced a step-by-step guide tailored specifically to its anti-public-power campaign needs. This hefty insiders' playbook is titled "Defending Your Shareholder-Owned Electric Company Against New Municipalization Threats: A Tactical Guide."

Jonathan Kaufman and Anne Solem, both executive vice presidents, are listed as coauthors. Kaufman is a white-haired guy with owl-like spectacles who can be seen regularly in the public seating section in meetings at City Hall, furiously scribbling notes, whenever the city's green CCA program is up for discussion. He did not return the Guardian's calls for comment.

The key strategy explained in Solem & Associates' playbook is to create the impression that there are influential community leaders and a grassroots coalition agitating independently for the company's agenda — when in fact the entire campaign is funded, organized, and run by one corporation.

Although the playbook never comes out to state just how the utility should go about persuading these "community allies" to see things their way, it makes it clear such allies are crucial to convince legislators, voters, and the general public that electricity programs run by municipal entities are "fraught with financial risks and other hazards."

The playbook even recommends seeing to it that "independent" studies are published with findings that support this claim. "To provide third-party credibility to your company's point of view ... develop various reports and studies that analyze the risks and costs involved in a new public power takeover," the playbook suggests. "It is preferable that the studies come from an independent group rather than your company."

At certain junctures, Kaufman and Solem blatantly encourage the electric company to engage in misleading practices to hide the influence of campaign consultants working to advance a corporate agenda. "Develop opinion editorials and draft letters to the editor," the playbook instructs. "Then ask your community supporters to personalize them and submit them to local newspapers."

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