The California Public Utilities Commission begins 2017 lopsided with energy experts, and bereft of significant prior experience in the telecommunications sector. The governor’s two new appointees to the commission – Martha Guzman Aceves and Cliff Rechtschaffen – have, to one degree or another, spent their careers working on energy and environmental issues, as have two of the three current commissioners, Carla Peterman and president Michael Picker. Aceves and Rechtschaffen have one other thing in common with Picker: all three were top political aides to Brown, with energy portfolios.
The choices might also shed some light on Brown’s thinking regarding the future of the CPUC. He puts a high priority on climate change issues. Picker has mirrored that concern and tends to view the commission’s work through a “decarbonising” lens. Reducing carbon emissions is a top – perhaps the top – item on the CPUC’s strategic agenda.
But the CPUC regulates more than just electric and natural gas utilities. The telecommunications industry – telephone and broadband – falls under its authority, as do private transportation and water companies.
For how long? Brown is working to move transportation oversight to the state transportation agency and has asked for a review of the CPUC’s jurisdiction over telecoms, also with an eye toward shifting or eliminating those responsibilities. If Brown’s objective is to roll back the CPUC’s telecoms and transportation jurisdiction, then it’s logical to pass over prospective (or incumbent) commissioners with direct knowledge of those industries.
Appointing close and politically adept aides is also a way to ensure that the CPUC stays in sync with the governor’s objectives. Although the CPUC is constitutionally independent and commissioners can vote as they choose, the governor’s office has directly exerted its influence on key decisions in the past. On high stakes telecoms issues – for example, the CPUC’s chaotic decision not to endorse common carrier status for broadband – that influence can tip the balance.
The CPUC has to be non-partisan. But that’s not the same thing as being politically tone deaf, which is a liability Brown would want to avoid. It appears he has.