CPUC’s future could be in the hands of California voters

by Steve Blum • , ,

It helps to be cute when you’re an endangered species.

The California Public Utilities Commission is one step closer to extinction, at least in its current form. The assembly utilities and commerce commerce overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment yesterday that would strip the CPUC of its special, independent status under the California constitution and give the legislature the job of deciding how utilities of would be regulated, or not.

Support for the bill – assembly constitutional amendment 11 – is bipartisan, with democrats and republicans signed up as co-authors. Only one committee member, Rocky Chavez (R – Oceanside), voted no, and he was just worried about some of the details and not so much the idea itself.

ACA 11’s primary author is Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), the chairman of the committee. He’s been a friend to cable and telco lobbyists lately, spiking an effort to extend California’s broadband infrastructure subsidy program and pushing hard to get a bill through his committee that was written by AT&T and would allow the company to end wireline service in unprofitable rural and inner city areas. But cable, telephone and other utilities companies didn’t show up to oppose or support ACA 11 yesterday, nor did they file any comments about it.

Public support came yesterday from two San Diego trial lawyers, San Francisco cab drivers, and a lobbyist for competitive local exchange carriers – independent telephone companies that rely on regulations for access to incumbent’s lines. Speakers from the unions that represent telephone company workers and, particularly, CPUC employees were also on hand, but just to take a neutral stand and extract a promise from Gatto that not only would no one lose a job, more people would probably be hired if voters approve the amendment. No one opposed it, no one spoke on the CPUC’s behalf.

I give Gatto points for clarity. The amendment is simple: it erases the language in the California constitution that establishes the CPUC and gives the legislature two years to come up with ways to replace it. He correctly described it yesterday as an historic opportunity for California voters to reconsider decisions that go back more than a hundred years. The choice is whether public utilities should be regulated by a single, permanent, semi-independent agency or by regular state government departments managed by the governor, with specific powers, responsibilities and budget determined by the legislature, potentially on a year to year basis.

There’s more committee review to come before the full assembly votes, and then the process repeats in the senate. If two-thirds of both houses approve it by July, it goes straight to a vote on the November ballot.