Thursday, March 14, 2024







        For more than half a century, as California’s electric and natural gas rates rose to some of the highest levels in America, conflicts of interest have abounded among the state’s top utility regulators.


        Former members and presidents of the California Public Utilities Commission moved over to become top executives of the state’s largest privately-owned electric companies. One former president of the Southern California Edison Co., the state’s second biggest power provider, served more than a decade as president of the PUC – under two governors.


        Time and again, the big electric companies got their way on issues from rooftop solar and price increases to being allowed to stay in business after being convicted of criminal negligence and manslaughter when wildfires and an explosion they caused killed many dozens of citizens.


        Until now, there’s been little hope of positive change. That’s because unlike the federal government, this state has no laws preventing the kinds of conflicts that have been so common. Commission members cannot be fired, even by the governors who name them to six-year terms.


There is no ”cooling off” period between when commissioners leave their posts and when they can be hired by the utilities they’ve been supervising. Nothing to stop corporate bosses from becoming top regulators, as onetime SCE President Michael Peevey did under both Gov. Gray Davis and his successor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. No way to tell whether their decisions are dictated by secret deals with regulated monopoly companies.


        This has all been true under both Republican and Democratic governors, most of whom have gotten huge campaign contributions from big utilities. Example: current Gov. Gavin Newsom has received more than $10 million in donations from just one utility, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric.


        But now there is hope at last. It comes in the form of Assembly Bill 2054, sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer Kahan of San Ramon.


        Given the lobbying power of companies like Edison, PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric, the fate of this bill is far from certain, both in the Legislature and at the hands of Newsom, who would have to sign off before it can become law.


        But the bill offers a lot of positives, most prominently a 10-year waiting period before any PUC member can accept a job at any regulated company.


        Said Bauer Kahan in a statement, “With California’s electricity rates consistently the highest in the nation, it is crucial to safeguard against potential conflicts of interest and undue industry influence on (regulation). AB 2054 is a crucial step toward restoring faith in our regulatory process and ensuring that regulators act solely in the public interest.”


        The bill would clearly be a big step, but it’s still far from perfect, as it does not prevent former PUC members from becoming lobbyists and consultants for the companies. Those jobs can be at least as lucrative as high corporate posts, and create similar potential conflicts of interest.


        Currently, the two most recent former PUC presidents are in just such slots. Michael Picker, PUC chief for most of ex-Gov. Jerry Brown’s last two terms, became a partner in a consulting firm called Caliber Strategies, which lists clients like the huge Blackstone investment and holding company and Portland General Electric, which serves 44 percent of Oregon residents.


        Picker, who led the PUC and consistently refused media interview requests during the first years of California’s long siege of massive utility-sparked wildfires, describes himself as an expert on how utilities should handle fire situations.


        Meanwhile, Marybel Batjer, PUC president for two years after Picker left and previously a Newsom adviser on how to keep PG&E going through its wildfire disasters, went to the lobbying firm California Strategies. That outfit bills itself as “the state’s preeminent government relations, public affairs and campaign consultancy.”


        But just because AB 2054 is not perfect does not mean it should be rejected. Its waiting period would still be a vast improvement over the current scene, which essentially sees no limits on secret deals between regulators and big utilities.


        So this is a must-pass measure, and voters should carefully note whether their legislators resist the blandishments of the big utilities trying to kill it.



    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

No comments:

Post a Comment