Don’t have to look far to find a horse in Sacramento.
Afternoon update: There’s a growing consensus that AB 2788 is dead, rather than just delayed. Resurrection is always possible while the legislature is in session, though. We’ll know its status for sure, at least its current status, by Monday, if not before.
No reason was given for the delays, however it’s worth noting that both bills are being carried – authored is the term of art – by Los Angeles assemblyman Mike Gatto, who chairs the assembly utilities and commerce committee, which in turn will be considering bills next week by San Diego senator Ben Hueso, who chairs the senate energy, utilities and commerce committee. Since next week is also a notional deadline for getting bills out of committee and a hard deadline for getting measures on the November ballot, it’s a fair guess that there’s some horse trading going on.
Hueso just amended a bill of his own and made it about extending the deadline for the CPUC to spend money set aside to pay for broadband facilities in public housing. Senate bill 745 previously dealt with some arcane aspects of the California Advanced Services Fund, so it’s not quite a gut and amend maneuver, but it is a sharp change of course. He’s also a co-author on a bill – SB 215 – that would tighten rules for how regulated utilities and other interested parties communicate with the CPUC about matters before it. Both of those bills are scheduled to be heard by Gatto’s committee on Tuesday.
The state legislature would then have to decide how utilities – energy, telecoms, water and transportation – will be regulated in California. It would be a reversal of a decision made more than a hundred years ago to move that authority out of the political melee in Sacramento. Even if lawmakers decided to keep the CPUC around in one form or another, it would be subject to the same oversight by the legislature and the governor as any other state department.
The vote was overwhelmingly in favor – 61 ayes to 9 noes, with 10 members not voting. There was a partisan tinge to the opposition, but nothing like a party line vote. Republicans cast seven of the noes, and accounted for eight of the abstentions, but that still left 13 joining with all but four democrats in the aye column. Since a two-thirds vote – 54 out of 80 – was required, republicans could have blocked it if they considered it important to do so.
In order for the proposed amendment to make it onto this November’s ballot, the senate has to act by the end of the month – since it’s a constitutional amendment, it doesn’t go to the governor for his signature. If the senate approves it after the deadline, the statewide vote would have to wait until 2018, unless a special election was called.
On the same day it put AT&T’s copper killer bill on what appears to be terminal hold, the assembly appropriations committee unanimously approved a constitutional amendment that would, in effect, turn utility regulation into just another state function, carried out by departments answerable to the legislature and the governor.
The California constitution gives the CPUC a special and largely independent status, with broad responsibilities for overseeing a wide range of utilities and offices deliberately located in San Francisco, away from daily political influences at the capitol. ACA 11 would remove that special status, and allow the legislature to decide which state departments would regulate which utilities, and how it should be done. That might mean keeping the CPUC in its present form, although it seems unlikely given the general dissatisfaction with its performance amongst lawmakers. But those kinds of details aren’t addressed in the proposed amendment – the legislature would figure it out later.
If two-thirds of both the assembly and senate agree by the first of July, it’ll be up for a public vote on the November ballot.
AT&T’s copper killer bill – assembly bill 2395 – is scheduled for a vote on Wednesday, while the CPUC measure – assembly constitutional amendment 11 – is sitting in a stack of bills that might or might not come to a vote. AB 2395 and ACA 11 need yes votes from the appropriations committee by Friday, or they’re dead. Not dead beyond all hope of resurrection – there are ample parliamentary maneuvers that could be made – but dead for all practical purposes.
The appropriations committee is where legislative leaders can weigh in on controversial measures. If the leadership likes it enough to give its blessing, it’s a fair bet that AB 2395 will be approved by the full assembly before the following week’s deadline – it only requires a simple majority vote to continue on to the senate. ACA 11 needs a two-thirds majority, so the road ahead is rockier, but if legislative leaders send it to a floor vote, that’s a good indication that it has a fighting chance.
It could have been a winning week (or two) for broadband infrastructure advocates in the California capitol, but instead last week turned into a victory march for AT&T and cable lobbyists as they fought to further entrench the cosy monopoly/duopoly conditions that underpin their business models. I’ve been blogging more or less on a play by play basis, but I think it’d be helpful to try to pull it briefly together.
It comes down to four key assembly bills, all of which landed in the assembly utilities and commerce committee over the past couple of weeks:
AB 2130 – a counter to Stone’s bill written by AT&T and carried by assemblyman Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), it would have ended ancillary CASF programs for public housing and regional consortia, added a new, $100 million infrastructure program rigged to highly favor incumbents and all but close the door to independent projects.
AB 2395 – Another AT&T-written bill, this one was fronted by Silicon Valley democrat Evan Low. A classic piece of obfuscation, the rhetoric focused on the geeky details of transitioning voice service from legacy analog systems to digital technology, which is something that most agree is necessary, albeit with different opinions regarding timing and other details. But it also includes language allowing AT&T to replace copper lines in rural and inner city areas with wireless-only service at will, and all but remove it from regulatory oversight.
AB 1758 died in committee due to lack of support, particularly from Gatto, who serves as chairman. AB 2130 followed into oblivion – with AB 1758 gone, there was no further need for it. AB 2395 and ACA 11 were both approved by lopsided majorities, and are headed to a second committee review, ahead of a vote by the full assembly.
The California assembly, or at least the utilities and commerce committee, is pointing in a clear direction: a smaller role for state government in telecoms regulation and subsidies. That would be wonderful if the result were likely to be a freer market with more innovation and competition. But that’s not the way to bet.
Incumbents, with AT&T in the lead, are carefully unpicking Californian telecoms policy, scrapping inconvenient restraints on monopoly power while keeping barriers to competition in place. That’s bad news. But there’s good news too: it’s still early in the game.
I’ve advocated for and helped to draft AB 1758 and its predecessors. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.
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.
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.