Commentary: Don’t blow up the CPUC, overhaul it (February 7, 2016)

Assemblyman Mike Gatto unveiled a big idea — blow up the CPUC before anything else in our shoddy utility infrastructure goes boom. In a nutshell, he wants to put a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot to reconstitute the PUC, i.e. blow it to smithereens by repealing its mandate and authority.

His frustration is entirely understandable as SoCalGas’s Porter Ranch blow out continues when it should never have happened. The anger is palpable, especially in the wake of the San Bruno pipeline disaster that killed eight on Pacific Gas & Electric’s watch, and the San Onofre boondoggle that put billions onto the shoulders of ratepayers who had nothing to do with SoCalEdison’s decision to install faulty generators.

Gatto’s thinking: It’s time to adapt to the 21st century by reallocating PUC functions to other agencies —leave limousine regulation to the state department of transportation, pipelines to oil and gas regulators, electric utilities to the energy commission and so forth.

We’re all for a constitutional amendment — but not for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Without some refining, Assemblyman Gatto’s idea will have utilities popping the Champagne. That’s because if you eliminate the constitutional powers of the existing PUC, you eliminate the commission’s very independence.

Utilities won’t have to wine and dine PUC Commissioners anymore by underwriting their trips abroad via the business associations and so-called nonprofits they fund. They can eliminate the middle man entirely and send more legislators on those trips, legislators who depend on generous donations to their campaign coffers.

It’ll be easier, not tougher, for utilities to influence agencies that depend on the legislature and governor to fund them and are not endowed with the same unique independence that the PUC is.

That’s why we want to preserve the independence of the PUC. Reform it by appointing commissioners who are not friends of the governor, or former utility officials. Close loopholes by outlawing ex parte communications in any circumstance, by making investigations public and rolling out the evidence and findings in real time so Californians can get real accountability. Let us put the PUC on trial in superior courts.

Either that, or eliminate the PUC together with publicly traded investor-owned utilities. Switch to a system of strong municipal utilities that have a better reputation of defending ratepayers from excessive rate hikes, that are more open to innovation and renewables. Let Californians own the utilities as muncipal utilities are owned by their customers. Let locally elected boards approve rate hikes in public, as muncipal utilities do.

If we don’t refine Assemblyman Gatto’s idea, we may do far more harm than good. The Greek myth goes that Pandora innocently opened a jar of Evils that flew away, leaving only Hope behind when she managed to shut its lid. Let’s not do something that will only deepen the moral corruption that exists between corporations and the corridors of power. Doing away with the PUC and its independent powers could snuff out any hope of reform.

—Liza Tucker blogs at CapitolWatchdog.org and directs Consumer Watchdog’s Toxics Project.

Source: Daily Press