Sunday, May 2, 2010

San Diego Chamber of Commerce Votes 79-2 to Oppose Prop. 16: Is PG&E's Whopper Indigestible?

A stunning series of lopsided setbacks for Proposition 16 as PG&E wended its way through various subcommittees of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce -- losing 22-0, 12-0, and 20-1 -- which culminated with a 25-1 smackdown at the full Board, raises the question all big budget media campaigns dread:

what if the dogs won't eat the dogfood?

Political consultants will tell you that every election is determined by the swing voter -- those who don't bring firm, pre-existing convictions to their voting choice but instead are subject to persuasion.  In the Proposition 16 election, that effectively means Southern California -- that majority of the state which has no previous relationship with PG&E and is expected to form its final opinion on the basis of political advertising.

There's probably no better test case than San Diego County, as geographically distant and culturally remote as possible from the repeated political wars PG&E has fought within its Northern California service territory since the 1920s. The nearest municipal utility is 97 miles away in Anaheim, so the public vs. private power issue gets no traction. And the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce is precisely the business-oriented, moderately conservative jury pool for which PG&E has designed its deceptive government-bashing, taxpayer-protecting, right-to-vote hogwash.

Which makes the results so startling.  Over a period of 6 weeks, the San Diego Regional Chamber had both sides make 5 - 7 minute presentations at each of three committee meetings and a full Board session, sometimes in person and sometimes by speaker phone.  After the presentations, a 10 - 15 minute question-and-answer session would follow.  The advocates were asked to leave the room while the committee or Board deliberated.  While this was a more sustained and participatory process than any other civic organization has yet conducted, it was hardly a replay of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  

The results are remarkable for their unrelenting consistency across each session.   The undeniable conclusion erupting from the experience is the ease with which Proposition 16 disembowels itself when subjected to even modest discussion.  That's got to make Peter Darbee wonder just exactly what he's bought with his $35 million campaign war chest.  

The notes written up for the April 22 Board meeting by the Regional Chamber staff provide a pretty good road map for the intrinsic flaws in Proposition 16, which Darbee apparently failed to fully think through before launching his political missile:

ENERGY & WATER COMMITTEE -- March 11, 2010:  Oppose Prop. 16 (22 - 0, 4 abstentions)
Committee Questions and Discussion
  • Is this fight between San Francisco and others to join the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD)?  Why should the rest of the State care?
    • Several committee members stated that this issue could spill over to other municipalities because Prop. 16 is written broadly to apply to all public power systems.  Ms. Alpert (representing the "Yes" campaign -- ed.) said that the measure puts in place uniform procedures. 
  • Committee members asked Ms. Alpert regarding Mr. Geesman's (representing the "No" campaign -- ed.) statement that Prop. 16 contains a serious drafting error in the "grandfather clause."  Ms. Alpert responded that the Legislative Analyst report does not support that statement.
  • Has SDG&E taken a position on Prop. 16?  San Diego Gas & Electric and The Gas Company have taken a neutral position on this ballot initiative; Southern California Edison has also taken a neutral position.
  • Committee members also voiced concerns that prices would increase if the measure passes since PG&E would eliminate any competition. 
Overall, committee members agreed with the arguments in opposition.  A motion was made, and seconded, to oppose Proposition 16.  The motion passed 22-0-4.

LEGISLATIVE & SMALL BUSINESS ADVISORY COMMITTEE -- April 2, 2010:  Oppose Prop. 16 (12 - 0, 1 abstention)
Committee Discussion
Committee members were concerned with the large amount of money PG&E is spending to pass the measure and saw that to be a "red flag" and a disservice to consumers.  After discussion, the committee agreed that it should support the Energy & Water Committee's recommendation to OPPOSE Prop. 16.  A motion was made to that effect, seconded, and passed 12-0-1.
 PUBLIC POLICY COMMITTEE -- April 20, 2010:  Oppose Prop. 16 (22 - 0, 6 abstentions)
Committee Discussion 
Committee members voiced a series of concerns with the measure: 
  • PG&E's sole, high dollar amount funding raises a "red flag."  It is a blatant attempt by PG&E to "buy" the passing of this measure.
  • Rates could increase if the measure passes since PG&E would eliminate any competition.
  • Why is a 2/3 vote needed?  Had this requirement been applied to large public facilities here in San Diego, we would have never been able to build the Convention Center expansion.  Ms. Alpert responded that the 2/3 voting requirement is a legitimate requirement for these types of issues because of the need to get into long-term financial obligations.
  • A representative from SDG&E, representing SDG&E on the Public Policy Committee, commented that SDG&E is neutral on this issue.
After discussion, a motion was made, and seconded, to oppose Prop. 16.  One member, voting in opposition to the motion, said that normally the Chamber would not generally support public entities competing against private business.  The motion passed 20-1-6. 

The Regional Chamber staff has not released a write-up of the full Board's April 22 deliberations, but the 25 - 1 vote to oppose Prop. 16 (with 1 abstention) speaks for itself.   Over a period of six weeks, in four separate deliberations, a broad cross-section of the civic-minded elements of the San Diego business community voted 79 - 2 (with 12 abstentions) to repudiate PG&E's adventure in political overreach.

Similar signs of revulsion from the Southern California swing voter:  the rejection of Prop. 16 by the Orange County Association of Realtors, and the spontaneous outpouring of disgust registered in published comments when the Orange County Register's "OC Watchdog:  Your Tax Dollars At Work" dissected Prop. 16.

One has to wonder what Darbee's shareholders, meeting on May 12 to vote on his corpulent compensation package, will make of this fiasco.