Monday, January 27, 2020




          Diamond lanes for the rich. Lexus lanes. A classic bait-and-switch. Social engineering on a massive scale. Taking the free out of freeways.

          Republican officials working for then-President George W. Bush in 2008 didn’t apply any of those epithets to their plan to charge tolls and allow solo drivers into carpool lanes on freeways in some of the most crowded parts of California.

          Rather, they dangled hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives before state and local officials to get them to adopt this benighted idea – and the locals bit, big time. It started with a grant of more than $200 million about 10 years ago from Bush’s Department of Transportation, which turned existing carpool lanes into toll lanes on the Interstate 10 freeway in eastern Los Angeles County. The idea has spread, even though it does not really work.

          As a result, many thousands of California drivers put transponders in their cars and get charged from 25 cents per mile on up for driving in lanes once occupied by carpoolers only – the result being that carpool lanes in many places are now as crowded as all the others.

          Now an enormous expansion of toll lanes is in its early stages. This idea has three goals: Allow toll lane drivers to move at faster speeds than they do now. Make other lanes so congested that drivers switch to different modes of transport, where available. And convert as many existing carpool lanes to toll ones as possible in order to produce more and more revenue to finance ever more toll lanes.

          The biggest new push is about to come in the 405 Freeway corridor between West Los Angeles and the vast San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles, a distance of about 10 miles of almost constant congestion despite California’s recent slow growth, which state officials say cost Los Angeles County about 96,000 residents over the last year.

          More than $5 billion in local sales tax revenue is already available for this project, which would try to find space for two new toll lanes in the existing right-of-way, along with building a new, parallel north-south light-rail line, either on a monorail or in a multi-billion-dollar tunnel. With the Trump Administration not exactly in a giving mood toward California, the extra $4 billion to $9 billion this project would need likely must come from borrowing against future road tolls.

          So drivers would essentially pay tolls to finance a plan aiming to get them out of their cars. All this because city planners – ignoring what happened when Los Angeles hosted the Olympic Games in 1984 – expect vast amounts of traffic during the upcoming 2028 Los Angeles Games.

          Never mind that traffic was at historic lows during the ’84 event, partly because thousands of Angelenos went elsewhere during those Games to avoid massive traffic that never materialized.

          Toll lanes are in the offing in many other places, too. Orange County planners contemplate new ones on four freeways there, with plans for new lanes rather than converting existing carpool ones. Toll lanes are also expected on several San Francisco Bay area freeways, including the 101 and 880 freeways, where carpool lanes would most likely be converted.

          It’s all part of a steady “We know best” approach by city, state and county planners, who have never taken a public vote on toll lanes, first sold to voters as being reserved for carpools only, with tolls not mentioned. That makes all this a classic bait and switch.

          No one knows whether the trend will lead to a public revolt on the scale of what happened in the mid-1970s, when then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration converted regular traffic lanes on the I-10 Santa Monica Freeway in West Los Angeles to carpools only. The outcry forced the state’s transportation director to resign and the lanes reverted. There are still no carpool lanes on that stretch of freeway.

          Every time the public speaks on this issue, it opposes new toll lanes or anything else aimed at driving them out of their cars. But so far, there have been no rebellions at the ballot box. Does Gov. Gavin Newsom really want to bet on that passivity continuing?

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to




          Back in the good old pre-2017 days when many Californians paid little or no attention to the approximately dollar-a-month maintenance charge on their electric bills, most customers figured their money was being spent to assure reliable power.

          Actually, much of the maintenance money collected over six decades by big utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric was instead going to executive bonuses and other items never authorized by state regulators.

          That happened, said the California Public Utilities Commission at the time, because it had too little manpower to fully inspect the books of those companies, let along examine their thousands of miles of overhead wires.

          Things changed after the spate of massive wildfires that began in the fall of 2017, when state inspectors began fingering utility company lines as the ignition points of more and more blazes. Much of that would likely not have happened if maintenance money had been spent properly.

          Now, with PG&E in bankruptcy court and Edison only one or two wildfires away from a similar fate, comes a remarkable report indicating more than anything before just how much the maintenance money paid by consumers could have accomplished if it had been property spent.

          That document came from the felonious PG&E, answering questions from U.S. District Judge William Alsup on its equipment inspections before and during the multiple “public safety power shutoffs” (PSPS) the big company inflicted on millions of customers last fall.

          Meanwhile, state legislators on Feb. 19 will consider for the first time investigating whether the PUC is capable of regulating the utilities’ safety efforts. “Government incompetence is part of the story,” said Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced.

PG&E, America’s largest privately-owned utility, intentionally cut off power three times in October alone when it became concerned that dry and windy conditions might combine with its flawed equipment to start even more fires. Sure enough, there are strong indications that despite even those blackouts, a PG&E transmission tower may have started the massive Kincade Fire in the North Bay region.

          On that revealing PG&E report: Company inspectors found at least 218 maintenance-related problems that could have started fires if equipment involved had been live at the times of the risky conditions spurring shutoffs. There were cases of rusted bolts that could have snapped in high winds and many cases of likely vegetation damage, to name only two.

          These items amount to an admission that even during the worst crisis in its history, PG&E could not maintain its equipment safely. They also raise major questions that Alsup – supervising probation of PG&E after its negligence conviction for damages during the San Bruno gas pipeline disaster of 2010 – should be asking.

          One is whether proper use of maintenance money that was misspent in the past could have prevented any of the recent major fires. Another is the matter of who authorized misuse of that money and what penalties should be assessed against them. So far, no person has suffered any criminal penalty for any utility action, not even for PG&E’s role in the deaths of at least eight persons in San Bruno.

          A third question is whether other California utilities similarly neglected their own maintenance responsibilities. For sure, Edison equipment likely played major roles in several big fires that have caused almost as much damage as those at least partly inflicted by PG&E gear. And what about SDG&E, which originated the PSPS practice in 2018 to prevent more corporate financial disasters like the hundreds of millions of dollars in damages it was assessed after the 2007 Witch Fire in the suburbs of San Diego?

          All these questions must be resolved before the fate of PG&E can possibly be decided fairly in bankruptcy court, where proposed plans for the company’s future range from Wall Street or government bailouts to breaking off and selling portions of the company to simply making it and all the other investor owned utilities in the state into a single large state-owned firm.

          If the outcome is fair to both customers and shareholders, the PG&E equipment report might emerge as a historic document reshaping and making safer future energy supplies in all of California.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Monday, January 20, 2020




          It was a head-scratcher the other day when the AIDS Healthcare Foundation submitted more than 1 million voter signatures aiming to place comprehensive rent control before Californians next fall, just two years after they rejected the same idea by a 20 percent margin.

          But no one in politics today seems to heed what the voters want: Anti-abortion advocates keep losing as they try again and again to enact parental notification requirements for pregnant teenage girls who seek abortions. Bankruptcy judges and state regulators try hard to keep irresponsible utility companies and their monopolies afloat when the public and many elected officials would rather convert them to localized co-ops. And so on.

          That’s also how it was last year when state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted what they billed as America’s toughest rent controls just one year after voters decisively nixed them.

          Now comes the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, seeking even tougher controls than voters rejected in 2018 or what’s been state law since Jan. 1.

          That new law limits rent increases to 5 percent per year, plus the local rate of inflation in locales where there previously was no rent control, while letting existing city rent control laws stand in places like Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Glendale, San Francisco and others that have had controls for years.

          For what it’s worth, those controls have not ended the housing affordability crisis anywhere; some of the highest-priced rentals in America exist in Santa Monica and San Francisco, both of which have had strong controls for decades.

          These are also among the densest areas in California, with scores of new apartment buildings rising in recent years to replace older, smaller ones. New construction – usually defined as less than 15 years old, but extending as far back as 1978 in some cities – is exempt from rent controls under most city laws, so it pays for developers to buy up older buildings, evict longtime tenants and build newer units where they can charge market rates, which keep climbing.

          The new state law was designed partly to mitigate this and give tenants more stability by making evictions of paid-up renters more difficult, whether they are designed to build new units or merely to raise rents.

          The main difference between the new law and the upcoming ballot proposition is that the initiative would end the practice of vacancy decontrol, where a state law passed in the 1990s now allows rents to rise to whatever the market will bear whenever a unit is vacated. The proposition would hold rents at the same limits even when a tenant leaves.

          This stricture, claims the California Apartment Association, could drive many landlords out of the rental business. That was one of their main arguments against the losing 2018 Proposition 10, and most voters apparently agreed.

          But vacancy decontrol and the lack of controls on newer buildings has put San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego all into the top 10 most expensive rental markets in America for the last 20 years.

          So maybe there is justification for ending vacancy decontrol, if that could make housing more available to the millions of Californians who can’t afford to live where they like. Here’s what the affordability crisis means in real life: The average minimum-wage worker would have to put in 92 hours of labor merely to pay the monthly rent on an average one-bedroom California apartment. The situation is tighter than in any other state.

          But compared to the new controls the state has already imposed over the wishes of its voters, the new initiative’s main change would be minimal.

          In some ways, it’s a form of hectoring voters who believed they decided the matter in the last statewide election.

          Of course, as abortion activists and others can attest, no matter is ever really decided permanently in California. The populace is too fluid, with millions moving into and out of the state each decade, to rule out fast and significant changes in public preferences. Which means rent control won’t be the last issue on which voters will get multiple chances to vote.     

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to




          So…, as Elizabeth Warren would start out, the Democrats held a presidential primary debate in California, in the Westchester district of Los Angeles to be specific. And still California issues get virtually no attention on the national scene.

          Even now, more than a month after that debate, with ballots appearing soon in mailboxes across the state, there’s still no substantial talk about California issues except from late-coming candidate Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor.

          Nothing much on homelessness; no creative ideas from any candidate – or from President Trump, for that matter. Nothing much on wildfire safety, other than condemnations of big privately owned utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. No easy-to-follow formulas for buying them up and splitting them into local pieces.

          Nothing on offshore oil drilling or fracking; certainly no hints on fighting off Trump administration efforts to expand both in California. Nothing on how to solve the state’s massive housing shortage and affordability crisis. Nothing on charter schools or Trump-spurred threats to national parks and monuments.

          Not a word on water or the bullet train, which will go nowhere without more federal funding.

          What’s wrong here?

          If there’s any real answer to the lack of attention to this one state that will choose far more Democratic nominating convention delegates than any other both in the March 3 Super Tuesday voting and during the entire primary season, it may lie in the way Democrats apportion delegates.

          While Republicans employ a winner-take-all system giving almost all of every state’s delegates to whoever gets the most votes in a primary or caucus, even if that candidate only wins a plurality, Democrats employ proportional representation.

          So no one running in California’s primary – basically separate elections in each of 53 congressional districts – will get the full pot of 495 delegates. Each district will annoint anywhere from 4 to 7 delegates, split among candidates who get at least 15 percent of the vote in a district. Another 114 delegates go mainly to the overall statewide winner.

          If all California’s Democratic delegates went to that overall winner rather than getting splintered, maybe the likes of Sens. Warren and Bernard Sanders, ex-Vice President Joe Biden and former Mayors Bloomberg and Pete Buttegieg would be forced to learn about the many issues now shaping lives in California.

          But today’s Democratic system doesn’t require this from them. Yes, they’ve become conversant with local candidates and issues in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the earliest votes and caucuses might provide momentum going into Super Tuesday states like California and Texas.

          The Democrats crafted their system almost 20 years ago. They wanted to prevent anyone from getting all California’s delegates – or any other state’s – with a mere 25 percent or so of the votes but still beating out competitors who finish barely a percent or two behind in the total vote.

          That leaves candidates open to damaging gaffes, like Sanders’ now-revoked endorsement of a far-left candidate in the race to replace Democratic Rep. Katie Hill in the 25th Congressional District stretching from Simi Valley into the High Desert of Los Angeles County. Yes, Cenk Uygur agreed with Sanders on most things, but the podcaster and former conservative has a history of homophobic and sexist rants.


          Sanders’ California staff advised him not to endorse, but he did anyway and ran into a buzz saw, then withdrew the endorsement after barely a day. Would this have happened if Sanders had studied California issues and knew how strong the LGBT and feminist movements are here?


          Instead, Sanders, like every other national candidate this year except Bloomberg, has viewed California almost entirely as a cash register, some candidates – like Buttegieg – even going to great lengths to conceal the luxury of several fund-raising venues.


          Will this all add up to yet another failed effort to give California more influence in choosing presidents by moving the primary ahead from its traditional June date? It’s too early to tell. For one thing, Bloomberg is concentrating time and money here heavily, hoping to make up for his late start by doing well here. Plus, if the very early small-state primaries yield contradictory results, California can still be a bellwether.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Monday, January 13, 2020




          Every time Scott Wiener amends his SB 50 plan to force much higher housing density on virtually all parts of California, it seems a little less onerous for homeowners whose hard-earned life savings are invested in the kind of single family homes and roomy lots that originally drew millions to this state.

          But make no mistake: Wiener, a Democratic state senator who views urban sprawl and large lots containing only one home as abominations, still means to change the face of California and the lifestyles of many Californians.

          He’s convinced this must happen in order to solve the concurrent problems of homelessness and high housing prices that now confront state residents in many cities and affect anyone who shops for a new or different home.

          Wiener, a resident of the extremely dense Castro District in central San Francisco, has until Jan. 31 to get some version of his bill through the state Senate or it will die for this legislative session – unless it’s resurrected via a new bill number later this year.

          Wiener doesn’t want to bother with that because of the urgency in the housing picture, where more than 140,000 Californians have no homes and must sleep in cars, doorways or mass shelters in armories and other public buildings on cold winter nights. More than half the state’s families also cannot afford to buy the median California home, whose price now tops $500,000.

          Wiener sees more housing as the solution, which makes him a natural ally of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who wants about half a million new units constructed in each of the next seven years, but saw less than one-third that many built during his first year in office.

          Yet, Newsom has not backed Wiener’s bill, perhaps because it offends too many present homeowners, who represent a powerful voting bloc that could unseat him in 2022 if he crosses them.

          But the newest version of SB 50 is neither as onerous nor quite as dictatorial as previous ones, which mandated approvals for unlimited five-to-eight story apartment or condominium buildings within half a mile of light rail stops and four-floor structures along major bus routes, regardless of what neighbors and local officials might want.

          The newest version gives cities and counties two years to develop their own plans for more housing, letting them site higher buildings in some places and lower ones in others, so long as they total enough new units to suit the state’s housing department. It also would let cities encourage new “granny” units in backyards. Meanwhile, the housing department has already forced some local officials to okay adding enormously to their housing stock by suing them or threatening them with loss of funds from the state.

          Wiener’s wide coalition of supporters includes the American Assn. of Retired People, developers, construction unions, realtors, the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) organization of urban liberals and a host of environmental groups, plus the main Los Angeles area chamber of commerce and now even a few mayors.

          “The changes (in) SB 50 give cities a broader menu of options,” said Brian Hanlon, CEO of California YIMBY.

          Meanwhile, it’s striking to see what an existing state mandate by itself – without SB 50 – could do to just one city during this new decade. One analysis says the existing law could force Santa Monica, a three-mile-square city of 92,000 facing the Pacific Ocean and surrounded on its other three sides by Los Angeles, to allow building of more than 9,000 new housing units in that time, likely adding at least 15 percent to its already crowded streets and neighborhoods.

          Local slow-growth advocates vigorously oppose this mandate, accepted as unavoidable so far by city officials. Slow-growthers fear the inevitable impact of SB 50’s added requirements.

          So do a lot of other cities and groups of local activists interested in preserving California’s longtime lifestyles.

          A collision appears inevitable, but was averted last year when one lawmaker used an obscure rule to stymie SB 50. No one is quite sure what might happen now, with pressure to solve housing problems building every day.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




          From Madera to Mill Valley, Eureka to Encinitas, Coalinga to Claremont, local columns are among the most popular features in newspapers that still survive in this era of Craigslist and eBay taking away classified advertising and many display ads moving to Google and Facebook.

          But now local columnists following in the large footsteps of the late icons Herb Caen of San Francisco and Leon Emo of Madera are suddenly an endangered species.

          Few newspapers, especially weeklies, can afford to pay these writers regular salaries for the valuable work they do in feeling out and revealing the pulse of their own communities, and many of them have other jobs or sources of income.

          Now a new state law best known as AB 5, authored by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego threatens the very existence of this vital species, without whose popular appeal some surviving newspapers might wither away.

          Many small papers also employ similarly-situated part-timers – day traders or supermarket cashiers or medical assistants by day, reporters by night – to cover city councils and local boards governing everything from water and sewers to schools and building permits. Without them, these agencies might get little or no coverage and many areas could become de facto news deserts.

          Under AB 5, newspapers now must make such almost-volunteer workers into full-time employees if they are paid for more than 35 news articles or columns per year. Never mind if the writers want this or not. Few small newspapers can afford to do it; even many large dailies are cutting off freelancers for fear they might be sued and found liable for huge legal fees and back pay.

          All this ties the fate of local columnists and other freelancers who are paid by the piece to truckers and gig workers like the thousands of contract employees at some of the same companies that now get advertising revenue which once funded news coverage. This includes outfits like Google, for one, which pays little or nothing to aggregate huge amounts of news that other people and companies produce at great trouble and expense.

          So far, truckers have done the best in getting around AB 5, which was opposed during last year’s legislative process by many of the very gig workers it supposedly will protect, especially those who drive for rideshare services like Uber and Lyft.

          A federal judge exempted independent truckers – many of whom own their own vehicles and drive as contractors for shipping companies –  from the new law, saying AB 5 conflicts with a federal law that forbids states to make laws affecting prices, routes or service of freight haulers. If those companies had to hire their current contract drivers with full benefits, it would certainly affect shipping prices. Freelancer writers have a pending lawsuit of their own.

          Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft are pushing a proposed November initiative to overturn the law.

          These moves have not stopped news outlets from moving to protect themselves from possible lawsuits. The largest such action came from Vox Media, which announced in mid-December it would cut ties with more than 200 California contract writers and editors who covered sports for its blog network SB Nation.

          Even a large outfit like Vox, which also owns New York Magazine and blogs like Eater and The Verge, can’t afford to give all its workers full benefits, so it has dumped those in California and won’t say how it will replace the coverage they provided.

          If Vox can’t afford to keep writers under AB 5, how can small-town weeklies be expected to?

          Gonzalez and other AB 5 sponsors never say they intended to target freelance writers, yet they wrote a very specific article limit into the law.

          The solution, if lawmakers want newspapers to survive, including some classic small businesses with one editor-ad salesman-writer who needs help but cannot afford to pay much for it, is to fix AB 5 with a new law exempting freelancers and newspapers whose revenues don’t exceed a specific limit.

          Anything short of that ought to provoke a First Amendment lawsuit, for no California law has ever threatened to curb freedom of the press more than this one.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Monday, January 6, 2020




          They’re not exactly ubiquitous, like other initiative petition carriers will be as the winter and spring proceed, but once in awhile shoppers may encounter an activist seeking signatures for one of two petitions that now seek a vote to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.

          That’s far from how it was 16 years ago, when carriers flooded shopping malls with petitions seeking the recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis, who eventually gave way to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

          The paucity of signable petitions is not the only difference between the two current recall efforts and what befell Davis, reelected to a second term as governor just months before the recall drive began in February 2003.

          For one thing, Davis was recalled in large part because of open corruption in his administration, exemplified by the awarding of a large state contract to software maker Oracle Corp. just after it made a large cash contribution to Davis’s campaign fund. There were other egregious examples. But there’s been no evidence of this kind of corruption under Newsom.

          There’s also the matter of money. Despite a smattering of national publicity, neither current recall effort – both are sponsored by grass-roots Republicans – has significant financial backing; hence the near absence of petition circulators. By contrast, the Davis recall quickly drew $1.2 million from former Congressman Darrell Issa, a San Diego County Republican and car alarm magnate who “retired” two years ago only to announce last fall for the usually safe GOP House seat of convicted campaign money cheat Duncan Hunter.

          So the Davis recall took off with both moral and financial impetus, both missing this time.

          These are two reasons it appears Newsom has little to worry about on the recall front, even though his job approval ratings in recent polls hover around a mere 50 percent, well below those of immediate predecessor Jerry Brown.

          There’s only one apparent parallel between Newsom and the recall-era Davis: energy crises. Davis had his after California adopted electricity deregulation before he became governor in 1999, with deregulation allowing Enron Corp. and other later-convicted companies and executives to criminally manipulate California power markets and prices.

          Newsom’s energy crisis came with the so-called “public service power shutdowns” (PSPS) that blacked out millions of Californians while Pacific Gas & Electric Co. did all it could to spare itself from financial consequences of its longtime failure to maintain and update power lines.

          Those shutdowns were partially planned in a series of spring and summer meetings between Newsom appointees and PG&E executives. But Newsom responded by (at least verbally) turning on the company that has been a major benefactor for him and his wife throughout his political career, using a series of negative epithets to register his outrage, whether real or feigned.

          So far, it appears, Newsom will not suffer the same fate as Davis. One recall, sponsored by GOP activist Erin Cruz of Palm Springs, had chalked up no valid voter signatures as of mid-November, more than two months after it was approved for circulation. The other, from San Diego County physician James Veltmeyer, also was not listed by the Secretary of State among referenda with at least 25 percent of needed signatures as of early January, about two months before its signature deadline.

          One reason may be that neither of these apparently floundering efforts targets anything specific Newsom did or did not do. Rather, Cruz told a reporter, she is acting against “over a decade of mismanagement of policies, public monies and resources,” and “putting Californians and United States citizens, including our veterans, last.”

          Without a complaint much more specific than that, no recall effort has ever gotten far.

          Democratic political consultant Garry South, who has worked for both Davis and Newsom, once said “The stars have to align for a recall to succeed.” They did just that against Davis, who might have fended off his recall had it not been joined by the ultra-popular movie muscleman Schwarzenegger.

          So Newsom appears safe –  for now. But some Republicans are warning he’d better mind his p’s and q’s and moderate what they call his “left-wing agenda” or they will be back over and over with new recall drives, one of which might just succeed in America’s current ultra-unstable political world.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




          A bit of shameful history repeated itself the other day, when the California Public Utilities Commission announced it was punishing the felonious, bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for its conduct prior to the deadly fire seasons of 2017 and 2018.

          The commission, empowered to set rates and supervise virtually all aspects of utility companies’ activity, feverishly announced it would forbid PG&E from charging customers for the equipment it lost during the Wine Country fires and the even more harmful Camp Fire that decimated the Butte County town of Paradise.

          PG&E’s “penalty” is to be $1.675 billion. Of course, it’s not paying out that money the way an ordinary citizen would if fined for some kind of crime. Rather, the money will allegedly be spent to mitigate future wildfire risks, including tree trimming, and for the company to conduct community meetings relating to wildfire safety.

          The last part of this PUC decision seems akin to instructing Charles Manson or Richard (The Nightstalker) Ramirez to conduct seminars on how to avoid getting murdered.

          But there’s more: Not only will PG&E be forced to spend the money from this penalty on work it should have done decades earlier with funds already collected for routine maintenance, but mere days later, the company was awarded a 3.4 percent rate increase that will shortly be costing customers more than $5.50 per month extra. This will amount to more than $500 million yearly, meaning PG&E will recoup its supposed penalty within about three years.

          Some penalty. Of course, PG&E’s customers saw something almost identical just five years ago. Back then, the PUC fined the company $1.6 billion for negligence leading to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons and destroyed dozens of homes.

          The huge utility, America’s largest power provider, was later criminally convicted in federal court for the San Bruno explosion and is still on probation. But no responsible executive ever paid a fine or served even one day in jail for the company’s crimes.

          That time, PG&E was forced to spend most of the fine money to improve its gas transmission system, with less than a third of the funds going to the state. Both that fine and the new assessment amount to forced investment, not punishment.

          In fact, these fines and the PUC’s much ballyhooed decision to limit  PG&E’s profits and those of the state’s two other big privately-owned utilities (Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric) to merely a tad over 10 percent are window dressing designed to make both the companies and the PUC look good.

          What company wouldn’t be delighted with a guaranteed profit of more than 10 percent of every dollar it invests in equipment or infrastructure? This can amount to billions of dollars when new transmission lines are built to bring power from distant solar thermal farms in the California desert to the big cities in the service areas of each utility.

          The profit decision was another in a long series of proceedings where everyone knew the approximate outcome in advance. The utilities ask for enormous profits (in this case about 16 percent), which the PUC cuts nearly in half. Then the commission brags about how it’s protecting consumers, while the companies can boast to shareholders about their profitability.

          All this for utilities that have not in recent years come close to demonstrating why they deserve the monopolies they hold in vast service areas. If this is punishment, most of the world’s big corporations would love to be punished.

          The bottom line here for PG&E and its fellow utilities is that they collected many billions over many years for maintenance, but instead spent much of it on other things unrelated to maintaining their systems and making them safer – all while the PUC never policed them adequately.

          To call the spate of decisions and settlements of the last month or so any kind of punishment is a bad joke on millions of Californians whose money the utilities have consistently misused for decades.

     Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to