Tag Archives: sb512

CPUC reform inches forward as governor calls for faster action

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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.

Surviving CPUC reform bills sent to governor

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Final versions of two utility regulation reform bills have been sent to governor Brown for his review. Senate bill 62 and SB 512, carried by senator Jerry Hill (D – San Bruno), change the way the California Public Utilities Commission conducts business. Both were passed in the final hours of the legislative session last month, without last minute changes.

SB 512 is the more consequential of the two. It aims to open CPUC proceedings to greater public scrutiny and participation. One of Hill’s goals was to bring local governments into decision making processes – the City of San Bruno found out about problems with PG&E oversight the hard way: a natural gas line exploded, killing eight people and devastating a neighborhood. His remedy is to require the CPUC to make an effort to let interested parties – including local governments – know when issues affecting them are up for consideration. According to the legislative analyst, that notification would happen early in the process…

Where feasible and appropriate, except for adjudication cases, before determining the scope of the proceeding, the commission shall seek the participation of those who are likely to be affected, including those who are likely to benefit from, and those who are potentially subject to, a decision in that proceeding.

SB 62 is an attempt to increase the independence of CPUC safety reviews, by creating a safety advocate’s office. The bill was the result of an end of session gut and amend maneuver. I don’t know the back story, but it happened in the midst of deteriorating negotiations over the content of a larger CPUC reform package, initially agreed by the governor, Hill and two other lawmakers. SB 512 and SB 215, a measure that tightens rules regarding private meetings between commissioners and interested parties, were the only two bills in that package that made it to the governor’s desk. He’s expected to sign both of them. His opinion of SB 62 is still to be determined, but it’s worth noting that it involves the kind of vague reorganisation of the bureaucracy that he’s vetoed in the past.

Ballot measure floated for California telecoms regulation

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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.

California legislative update: final bills not posted yet, safety advocate approved

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And away we go!

Final versions of telecom-related bills that were approved in the final, dark hours of the California legislature’s session on Wednesday haven’t been posted yet. Among those approved was senate bill 62 by senator Jerry Hill (D – San Bruno). Yesterday morning, its fate wasn’t clear, but after the dust settled, the verdict was yes; it will be sent on to the governor.

SB 62 would create a quasi-independent safety advocate’s office at the California Public Utilities Commission, similar to the ratepayers’ advocate’s office. There’s already a safety division at the CPUC, that currently has responsibilities that would be transferred to the safety advocate. The new office would have direct reporting responsibilities to legislative oversight committees and, presumably, be able to pursue safety-related issues on its own initiative, without having to go through the bureaucratic hierarchy at the commission.

It joins SB 215 (limits contacts with commissioners) and SB 512 (opens up the commission’s work to greater public scrutiny) on the governor’s desk. The final-final version of SB 512 hasn’t been posted yet, but there’s been no indication of significant changes.

SB 1017 (public release of documents filed by utilities) appears to be dead for good, though. Although legislative staff haven’t gotten around to posting the official obituary, there’s no indication that it ever got to a final floor vote. It joins the omnibus reform bill, assembly bill 2903, in the recycling bin.

So governor Brown has two of the four bills he agreed to support as part of a grand utility reform package back in June – SB 215 and SB 512. The two others – AB 2903 and SB 1017 – are dead. Two more – SB 62 and AB 2168 (posting CPUC audits and inspections on the web) are also on his desk.

It’s always risky trying to predict what governor Brown will do, but my best guess is that he will sign SB 215 and SB 512 as previously agreed, as well as AB 2168 – it’s a harmless enough substitute for SB 1017, and lets everyone declare victory on the transparency front. SB 62, though, is the sort of ad hoc rearrangement of the bureaucracy that Brown has found unacceptable in the past. I’m betting that one gets vetoed.

California telecoms policy reform dies in Legislature

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The top line: an attempt (assembly bill 2903) to overhaul, or at least start the process of overhauling, the California Public Utilities Commission is dead; so, apparently, is one (senate bill 1017) aimed at releasing more information filed by utilities at the CPUC. Another, (AB 512), that’s intended to generally make CPUC processes more public, passed.

Going into the final, dark hours of the legislative session last night, several major utility reform bills were still in limbo, awaiting final language and votes. The uncertainty intensified as the midnight deadline drew near and capitol computer systems crashed. Not all the results and final bill language are online this morning, but this is what I have so far:

AB 2903 (assemblyman Mike Gatto, D, Los Angeles) – It’s dead, according to a tweet from Gatto. It was the Big Kahuna of this year’s CPUC reform bills. Besides shuffling some transportation-related oversight duties to other state agencies, it would start a top to bottom review of telecoms regulation in motion. Sorta. Maybe. The first draft of the bill had a detailed, and relatively even handed, list of broadband and telephone related issues to consider, but that was chopped out and replaced with a vague and general mission statement that was less directly threatening to all the interests at play. No details yet on why it died, although Gatto’s tweet simply blamed the clock.

AB 2168 (assemblyman Das Williams, D, Santa Barbara) – requires the California Public Utilities Commission to post utility audits and other reports on the web. It was passed by the legislature and now sits on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature, or veto.

SB 62 (senator Jerry Hill, D, San Bruno) – a last minute entry, it creates a public safety advocate’s office in the CPUC. As of early this morning, the legislature’s website indicates that the bill died. It’s possible, though, that the system hasn’t quite caught up with the late night flurry of activity.

SB 215 (senator Mark Leno, D, San Francisco) – originally intended to ban closed door discussions between commissioners and top CPUC staff and utilities and other interested parties about matters under review, it was dialled back to ban some conversations and require public disclosure of others. Passed by the legislature and sent on to governor Brown.

SB 512 (Hill) – a grab bag of reforms intended to open up CPUC processes to more public scrutiny. It was approved yesterday and is on its way to the governor. Exactly what was approved is unclear – the final language of the bill hasn’t been published yet. The link above is to the version posted a couple weeks ago. Maybe it’s the final final, maybe not.

SB 1017 (Hill) – it was supposed to allow the CPUC more discretion regarding whether or not to publicly release information filed by regulated utilities. SB 1017 was aggressively opposed by them, with telephone companies in the lead. The result was a significantly watered down version that did more to bake in secrecy than loosen it. It apparently died without a final vote yesterday, although, again, it’s also possible that the legislature’s online info will get a further update.

Utility reform game clock ticks down in Sacramento

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Final minutes of play.

With three days left in the legislative session, key California Public Utilities Commission reform bills are still pending and still subject to haggling over final language.

The big one is assembly bill 2903, by assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles). It makes a number of changes in the way the commission does business, including transferring some transportation-related oversight duties to other state agencies, and sets up an undefined reevaluation of the way broadband and telephone companies are regulated. Technically, AB 2903 is in the hands of a senate committee, but as a practical matter it’s still subject to closed door negotiations between legislators, the governor’s office and industry lobbyists.

Three bills by senator Jerry Hill (D – San Bruno) are pending in the assembly: senate bill 62 would create a new safety advocate office at the CPUC, SB 512 opens up some of the commission’s work to more public scrutiny, and SB 1017, which originally would have made it easier to release information filed by utilities but has since been watered down to mostly symbolic value. But unless and until final votes are taken, nothing is certain.

SB 215 by senator Mark Leno (D – San Francisco) which would tighten restrictions on private conversations between utilities and commissioners, and top staffers, is already on the governor’s desk. So is AB 2168, by assemblyman Das Williams (D – Santa Barbara), which would require the CPUC to post utility audit and inspection reports on the web. Williams’ bill wasn’t part of the grand compromise between the governor and legislators announced in June, so it might not be on the fast track for approval.

The deadline for lawmakers to act is midnight Wednesday.

Telecoms lobby pushes California lawmakers to muzzle local government

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Watchdog?

City councils and county boards of supervisors in California have an annoying habit of listening to residents and questioning the broadband marketing hype spun in out-of-state corporate headquarters and spread in Sacramento, where perks and campaign cash buy an attentive audience. Keeping local government out of any meaningful oversight role is a high priority for cable and telco lobbyists, and their successful efforts are evident as the final texts of key legislation begin to take shape.

Senate bill 512 by senator Jerry Hill (D – San Bruno) began as a response to the natural gas explosion that devastated his constituency, and the ensuing backchannel finagling between PG&E and CPUC commissioners. It’s still part of a package of California Public Utilities Commission reforms pending at the capitol, but provisions that would have given local governments more clout, and the money to wield it, were severely pruned back in the face of fierce – sometimes bitter – opposition, particularly from AT&T and the cable industry’s lobbying front.

Those lobbyists can also take comfort in the elimination of new rules for CPUC proceedings, that would have allowed local governments to enter “reports and analyses” into evidence. And a top level review of the CPUC’s role in regulating the telecoms industry no longer specifically includes an assessment of local agencies “that provide consumer protection and ensure the safety of telecommunication services”.

Local governments have virtually no regulatory authority over telecoms. The last meaningful remnant – cable franchises – was eliminated ten years ago. What’s left is a truth telling role. Incumbents defend their service monopolies by maintaining a information monopoly and using it to drive a narrative that suits their interests. Cities and counties are often the only source of credible facts and independent broadband advocacy. The California legislature should expand that role, not work to fence it in.