The danger of Props. 16 and 17

The problem here is not just two awful laws - it's the idea that a single company, with loads of cash, can utterly subvert the basic premise of Democracy

EDITORIAL The California Democratic Party voted at its statewide convention April 17 to oppose Propositions 16 and 17. The San Francisco Chronicle — no friend of public power and consumer rights — endorsed strongly against both measures April 18. In fact, most major newspapers and civic groups have come out against what amounts to the most blatant attempt in California history by a pair of big corporations to buy favorable legislation at the ballot box.

And for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Mercury Insurance, none of that matters much.

This campaign is all about money — big gobs of money — and PG&E and Mercury have it and their opponents, so far, don't. And if that doesn't change in the next few weeks — if Democratic Party leaders, starting with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — don't immediately start making the defeat of these two measures a priority, California will send a signal to every big corporate interest in the world that its laws and policies are for sale.

Prop. 16 is being sold — in slick TV ads and mailers so deceptive they can only be called intentional lies — as giving the voters the right to have a say before local government gets into the business of selling electricity. The proposition, one PG&E flyer notes, "is our best protection against government spending your money to get into a business they [sic] know nothing about."

Actually, government knows a lot about the electricity business. All over California, public power agencies offer better service and lower rates than the private utilities. Nationwide, residents of more than 2,000 communities have public power — and few want to give it up and return to buying electricity from private utilities.

But that's not the point. Prop. 16 exists entirely because PG&E wanted to stop competition. The company is spending at least $35 million of its money to pass a law that would require a two-thirds vote (a nearly insurmountable obstacle) before any local agency can offer or expand local electricity service. The Chronicle, which has always opposed public power in San Francisco, argues that "Californians should be skeptical of any local government's claim that it can deliver cheaper and cleaner power than an established utility. But they should be at least as wary when that monopoly utility wants to deprive them of that choice."

Prop. 17 is another blatant single-interest measure, sponsored and underwritten entirely by one giant insurance company, to change the way car insurance is regulated in California. It would, among other things, allow insurers to raise rates for people who don't already have coverage. Give up your car for a year (because you lost your job and couldn't afford it, or decided that you could commute just as well by bicycle, or for any other reason) and the next time you buy insurance, your rates could soar — even if your driving record was clean.

The problem here is not just two awful laws — it's the idea that a single company, with loads of cash, can utterly subvert not only the intent of California's initiative law but the basic premise of Democracy. PG&E and Mercury were unable to get the state Legislature to do what they wanted, so they hired campaign consultants, paid millions for people to gather signatures on petitions, put the self-serving measures on the ballot, and are now flooding airwaves and mailboxes with well-crafted, effective lies. If they succeed, what's going to stop every other sleazy big-money interest from doing the same?

Well, right now, nothing.

It's absolutely critical, both for the issues of public power and consumer rights and for the fundamental notion that you can't simply buy a new law, that Props. 16 and 17 are defeated.