CPUC reform inches forward as governor calls for faster action

by Steve Blum • , , ,

It’s time to rock and roll.

It’ll be harder for lawyers and lobbyists to have backroom conversations at the California Public Utilities Commission, more information about CPUC proceedings will be made public and the commission will have to open up its processes to greater public participation, not least by holding meetings around the state instead of primarily at its San Francisco headquarters. Those and other changes will be imposed on the CPUC by a pair of bills signed into law yesterday by governor Jerry Brown.

Senate bill 215, by senator Mark Leno (D – San Francisco), tightens up ex parte rules that govern how utilities, advocacy groups and any other involved party can communicate with commissioners and top CPUC staff about matters under consideration. SB 512, by senator Jerry Hill (D – San Bruno), requires the commission to proactively reach out to local governments and others who are directly involved when issues arise that affect them. It also gives cities and counties greater ability to intervene – and be compensated for it – in proceedings that arise from catastrophic events, like the PG&E gas line explosion that devastated a San Bruno neighborhood. And it removes a legal requirement that, in effect, forces the CPUC to hold most of its meetings in San Francisco.

SB 215 and SB 512 were the sole survivors of a package of CPUC reform bills negotiated between Brown and a handful of legislators in June. In the past, the governor has vetoed ad hoc attempts to micromanage CPUC affairs, but this year he agreed to both a list of specific changes, including moving transportation enforcement responsibilities to other state agencies, and a general review of California’s telecommunications regulatory regime. But bickering by deep-pocketed utility lobbyists and push back from the CPUC itself stalled the major elements of the deal until the clock ran out on this year’s legislative session. A trio of peripheral bills also squeaked through and were signed by Brown: AB 2168 which requires CPUC audits to be posted on the the web, SB 62 which establishes a quasi-independent safety advocate at the CPUC and SB 661 which tightens management of underground utility infrastructure, particularly gas lines.

Brown isn’t giving up. In the formal comments he attached to his signing of the bills, the governor called on the CPUC to implement some of the reforms on its own initiative, and to cooperate specifically with an administrative review of telecoms regulations and an effort to move more transportation oversight responsibilities to other state departments. He added his own sense of urgency, saying “these important reforms cannot wait another year”. The trick will be to make the wheels of state bureaucracy – CPUC and otherwise – to move fast enough to make a difference.