State Senator Mark Leno is introducing a bill that could stop Pacific Gas and Electric Company from spending ratepayer money on political campaigns.
The bill, which doesn't yet have a number, would put a serious crimp in the private utility's ability to launch another effort like Prop. 16 -- the $50 million campaign to block public power in California.
The bill wouldn't stop PG&E from spending money on politics -- that might fly in the face of the Supreme Court's rulings on corporations and campaign finance. It just says that no ratepayer money can be spent -- and since PG&E gets the vast majority of its money from ratepayers, the measure would at the very least significantly limit the company's political efforts.
And since PG&E is a regulated utility, the state of California has every right to control how much money PG&E collects from its customers -- and where that money goes.
Not only would the bill ban PG&E from running its own Prop. 16-style statewide campaign, it could block the company from spending tens of millions of dollars to oppose public-power efforts. The bill states that any gas and electric utility with more than three million customers in California (and there's only one such company)
"shall not spend funds received from ratepayers as authorized revenues on political and public affairs related to state or local governments. For purposes of this section, political and public affairs spending includes any activities involving, directly or indirectly, advocacy of the election or defeat of political candidates and of the adoption or defeat of ballot measures, through the actions of the corporation or through a third party."
A few years ago, a bill like this would have had little chance in the state Legislature, where PG&E spent lavishly and was relatively popular. But under CEO Peter Darbee, the company has done nothing but piss off legislators. Not one state lawmaker endorsed Prop. 16. It's safe to say that today, PG&E doesn't have many friends.
More details to come as I get them.
UPDATE: Here's Leno's comment, from a press release I just got:
“PG&E launched a dangerous and misleading political campaign – with ratepayer funds – that had only one goal, to preserve the corporation’s monopoly. The state’s largest electrical and gas company should not be able to use ratepayer-generated profits to write special rules into the state constitution protecting it from competition. This measure ensures that local communities across the state have the ability to launch their own municipal power agencies, which will in turn encourage competition and help keep our rates low.”
UPDATE TWO: I just spoke with Leno, and he noted that the bill has a decent chance, since PG&E at this point "would be hard pressed" to find any friends in Sacramento. "The bill is to protect ratepayers," Leno said. "It requires the California Public Utilities Commission, when it hears PG&E's rate cases, to disallow any spending on political campaigns."