CPUC reform proposal increases transparency and avoids drag

29 June 2016 by Steve Blum
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The long list of reforms planned for the California Public Utilities Commission by governor Jerry Brown and a trio of lawmakers will make proceedings more transparent and open to public participation, and appears to moderate some of the procedural sand that current proposals would throw into the gears. Well meaning sand, but sand nonetheless.

The package announced on Monday rolls in bills that Bay Area senators Jerry Hill and Mark Leno have already put on the table. As currently written, the palindromic senate bills 215 and 512, by Leno and Hill respectively, would put further limits on closed door meetings between commissioners, senior staff and people with an interest in matters before the CPUC. The commission could spread its meetings around the state – right now the vast majority are at its San Francisco headquarters – and would be required to publish more information about proceedings in progress and better statistics about how well it meets deadlines, and make some practices less lawyerly.

That’s all to the good. The more information that’s available on a timely basis and the fewer opportunities for finagling behind the scenes, the more level and fair the playing field will be. It’s a way of counterbalancing the resources and motivated attention that big, regulated utilities can bring to bear on the commission.

What isn’t on the governor’s list is a provision in Hill’s proposal that would require the CPUC to seek out potentially interested parties and encourage them to participate, before a proceeding is formally kicked off. Given the statewide reach of commission decisions and the multitude of agencies, businesses and interest groups in California, that alone could drag out decisions for additional months or years.

Also missing is an expansion of what is known as intervenor compensation. That’s money that utilities or, sometimes, the commission itself pays to individuals or organisations that jump into proceedings and oppose, to one degree or another, the positions taken and requests made by those utilities. SB 512 would add local governments to the list of intervenors eligible for compensation, and a third, apparently defunct bill, AB 2120, would have included schools. There’s nothing wrong with local governments getting involved – I’ve enthusiastically helped clients do just that – but the last thing California needs is a new ratepayer subsidised cottage industry of consultants and lawyers selling cities, counties and school districts on the dubious value of making speculative filings. The deal reached with the governor – at least as announced – leaves that perk out and rightly so. If you subsidise more gridlock, you’ll get more gridlock.

What the package does do is remove requirements that often require third parties to fight it out to the bitter end in order to qualify for compensation. To the extent it encourages brevity and focus, that’s a good thing.

What we really need, of course, is to start seeing the actual bill language. The first clue could come later today. Both SB 215 and SB 512 are up for a hearing today in the assembly’s utilities and commerce committee, chaired by LA assemblyman Mike Gatto, also a member of Monday’s legislative troika.

UPDATE: AB 2120 isn’t defunct, after all. It’s moving to a hearing in the senate appropriations committee in August. SB 512 was approved by the assembly utilities and commerce committee, still with the intervenor compensation language more or less intact.