Ballot measure floated for California telecoms regulation

6 September 2016 by Steve Blum
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Out of time and running room.

A new attempt to overhaul the California Public Utilities Commission is bobbing on the horizon. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), who fronted a failed effort in the legislature, says he’s talking with “like-minded reformers” about a ballot initiative. That’s a bit unsettling, since his fellow travellers this year have largely been telecoms lobbyists and trial lawyers. Those are two groups with deep pockets for friendly policies and long arms for compliant politicians.

Gatto will need help to gather enough signatures to put a measure on the next available statewide ballot, which will be the spring 2018 primary. He’s also expected to run for state treasurer in that same election. Neither effort will come cheap.

His plan to, among other things, move transportation oversight responsibilities from the CPUC to other state departments and consider major changes in telecoms regulation died in the final minutes of the legislative session last week. There’s an excellent account of how that happened in a Los Angeles Times story by Liam Dillon. A grand bargain struck in June between Gatto, Bay Area senators Jerry Hill and Mark Leno, and the governor crumbled as opposing interests – including AT&T, the cable industry’s lobbying front and the CPUC itself – wrestled over the details…

One major problem emerged last weekend when PUC President Michael Picker objected to a part of the bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for agency employees to knowingly release confidential information…

But Hill worried that if he took out that provision, telecommunication and cable companies would have tried to kill the measure…

Negotiations were still continuing through Wednesday morning with cable company representatives meeting in Hill’s office. By that point, the legislation had long missed key deadlines for the end of the session and could only advance if it received a waiver from normal Senate rules through a bipartisan supermajority vote.

As the clock ticked toward a midnight Thursday deadline, that support wasn’t there.

The result was two dead CPUC reform bills – Gatto’s assembly bill 2903 and Hill’s senate bill 1017 – and two watered down measures, SB 215 and SB 512 by Leno and Hill, respectively. According to Dillon’s article, the governor says he’ll sign the two survivors. The fate of a third, last minute bill – Hill’s SB 62, which would establish a quasi-independent safety advocate at the CPUC – is less certain.