PG&E’s laughable Prop 16: Who needs friends when you’ve got $35 million?

PG&E look out for ratepayers? Ha!
Rebecca Bowe

Last month, when the Guardian sent an intern to cover a debate between Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokesperson David Townsend and California Sen. Mark Leno, the reporter was ejected from the event at Townsend’s request.

I figured I’d be immune from such nonsense when I ventured to the state capitol yesterday for a joint informational hearing about Proposition 16, the ballot initiative that PG&E has bankrolled for the June ballot for the purpose of extinguishing competition in its service territory. The initiative would establish a two-thirds majority vote before any municipal electricity program could get up and running, and its sole sponsor is PG&E.

But just after I snapped a photo of Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano chuckling sardonically at a PG&E executive who had mistakenly referred to the ballot initiative as “Prop 13,” a guard swooped in and ordered me to stop photographing and turn off my voice recorder.

I shot him a dirty look at first, but then realized that I could wind up meeting the same fate as our unfortunate intern if I didn’t cooperate. He informed me that it’s protocol to provide advance notification before photographing or recording a public meeting at the capitol (despite the fact that the hearing is televised and open to the public). Then he asked for my name and affiliation, and said he would have to ask committee members for permission before he could allow me to do any more recording or photographing. Presumably, the decision would be based on who was asking. He vanished and, a few minutes later, returned to say that the answer was “no.”

Thus, I was reduced to frantically scribbling down notes, which means the exchanges transcribed below aren’t as complete as they could be. (Anyone know of an acupuncturist who can soothe muscle stiffness in the forearm?)

Yesterday’s hearing made it clear that PG&E has little support for the ballot initiative other than its own war chest of funding, and it’s royally pissed off the Legislature besides. PG&E Senior Director Ed Bedwell blushed a bright red hue more than once when he was assailed with statements such as, “Alienating those who are usually in your camp is not a good sign,” an admonishment delivered by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano when pointing out that not even California’s other investor-owned utilities are behind the initiative.

Apparently, not even the Republican members of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee and the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee could stand the smell of the PG&E’s bullshit, as every one of them had walked out of the room by the end. Not a single member of either legislative committee had a positive word for the proposition, but Assembly Member Jared Huffman plainly stated his opinion: “I think this is a terrible initiative.”

Nor was there any evidence of the “coalition” supporting Prop 16 that the PG&E-funded public relations firm that orchestrated this campaign claims exists. Every single member of the public who commented voiced strong opposition, and most had traveled there on their own dime.

Even the conservative-leaning Agricultural Energy Consumers Association, which represents 40,000 growers, is against it. “It would have a chilling effect on the farming community,” Michael Boccadoro of the Agricultural Energy Consumers testified. A representative from the California Chamber of Commerce spoke in favor, but local Chambers of Commerce are not unified in their support.

Paul Hauser, of Redding Electric Utility, testified that if customers in his territory --  which has been slammed with high unemployment -- were paying PG&E prices instead of the municipal electricity rates, every single man, woman, and child would have to fork over an extra $440 per year.

The Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation, which is the parent company of the regulated Pacific Gas & Electric Company, has vowed to spend $35 million on Prop 16. Since the corporation derives all of its funding from the company, which is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission and earns its money through customer billing, this means that every PG&E ratepayer is pitching in. Speaking of bills, PG&E rates will increase 30 percent by 2013 if PG&E is granted its requested hikes, according to The Utility Reform Network.

“Maybe it’s time the Legislature took a very hard look at whether that parent corporation needs to exist,” Boccadoro, of the agricultural group, commented. “Maybe it’s time for a vote on rate increases as well.”

One point that came up over and over again during questioning was the fact that instead of proposing changes to legislation, PG&E sought to use the initiative process to get its way, a move that Leno argues is flouting the democratic process. A second point was that its move is inconsistent with a statute that requires utilities to “cooperate fully” with community-choice aggregation programs. Below are some exchanges between members of the Legislature and Bedwell, the PG&E executive.

Leno: Can you describe to us how Prop 16 exemplifies your abiding by the statute of AB 117 in “cooperating fully?”
Bedwell: Can you repeat that?
Leno: (repeats language of statute)
Bedwell: … “I don’t see how that’s necessarily inconsistent. The cooperation aspect is in the implementation…”
(Leno takes issue with this, saying that they could have proposed that such language be included in the bill at the time it was being drafted. He points out that Prop 16 would present a “hurdle” to municipal power programs, and asks Bedwell if he agrees.)
Bedwell: Says he thinks it would create “a high bar.”
Leno: “A high bar. How is a high bar in any way consistent with ‘cooperate fully?’”
Bedwell: … “I don’t see it’s a matter of cooperation or lack of cooperation. …”

Bedwell: “We value our customers. I think you know through the last six or seven years in San Francisco, you know that we’re very committed to retaining our customers.”
Leno: (Explains that he is a PG&E customer in San Francisco, and a Sacramento Municipal Utility District [SMUD] customer in Sacramento.) “I pay PG&E 25 percent more, and I get more green power here in Sacramento. [In PG&E’s San Francisco territory] my business suffers regularly from blackouts. I’ve never had a blackout here in Sacramento.”