Sunday, January 31, 2010

Landmine Buried Within Vague Wording: Vote Required Before New Residents Can Hook Up!

  • in an election where the only hot-button contests pulling voters to the polls are high profile Republican primaries for Governor and U.S. Senator, PG&E's political consultants have devised a clever strategy for the San Francisco utility to aim at unsuspecting conservatives:
  1. Disguise yourself as a taxpayer protection movement.
  2. Define your adversaries with precision and emphasis -- community choice aggregators (soft-headed environmentalists) and new or expanding government-owned utilities (socialism on the march).
  3. Spend freely to disseminate your message, confident that the public agencies you are targeting are prohibited by law from spending one nickel of public funds to counter it. 
  • under these circumstances, what self-respecting Republican (and many a Democrat or Independent) wouldn't be expected to vote to erect a two-thirds-vote-of-the-people safety fence to protect the public treasury from such looting? 
  • but a close reading of Proposition 16 reveals that its largest impact -- whether intentionally or through sloppy drafting -- may be in disrupting the ordinary, day-to-day operations of existing municipal utilities which presently provide 25 - 30 % of California's electricity.
  • the problem is clear from the first sentence of the initiative's title and summary, a legal interpretation written by the career staff in the Attorney General's office, which says the approval of  two-thirds of the voters must be obtained "before providing electricity to new customers..."
  • the language which PG&E actually wants to cement into the State Constitution is more convoluted and speaks instead of an effort to "expand electric delivery service" as the trigger for the two-thirds vote requirement.
  • PG&E's  proposed Constitutional Amendment doesn't define either "new customers" or "expand electric delivery service" but it does say that the latter phrase does not include "continuing to provide electric delivery service to customers already receiving electric delivery service from the local government prior to the enactment of this section."
  • so, the phrase "expand electric delivery service" apparently does include providing such service to customers who didn't receive such service from the local government prior to enactment.
  • of course, PG&E's ballot initiative also purports to exempt "electric delivery service within the existing jurisdictional boundaries of a local government that is the sole electric delivery service provider within those boundaries."  But with the statewide proliferation of distributed generation and direct access accounts over the last 30 years, it may be empirically impossible to qualify for that exemption.  Especially in court.
  • Bottom Line:  if you're a resident of Anaheim, or Burbank, or Glendale, or Pasadena, or Riverside -- not exactly socialist towns, but all served by municipal utilities -- or any of the other several dozen similarly impacted jurisdictions, your new neighbor isn't going to be getting his electricity turned on until two-thirds of the voters say so.