Political Power Struggle Over PUC Reforms

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

The California Public Utilities Commission rightly faces questions about its effectiveness and responsibilities, but in the end the issue of reforms will come down to a question of power—the political kind.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s proposed constitutional amendment to replace the authority of the PUC will get the debate started and public sentiment should be on his side. The natural gas disaster at Porter Ranch follows in relative short order the San Bruno gas line explosion and the questionable dealings involving the San Onofre nuclear power plant. All these highly publicized issues have given the PUC a black eye.

The PUC’s stated mission is “protecting consumers and ensuring the provision of safe, reliable utility service and infrastructure….”

Clearly, the agency has failed that mission in the aforementioned high profile cases. At least now, a question has been raised about the ability of the PUC to oversee infrastructure deficiencies and whether the agency is equipped to deal with utilities in this day and age.

Gatto’s solution is to bring the semi-autonomous PUC under the influence of the legislature, possibly moving some of the PUC functions to other state agencies.

This effort will run into opposition from the governor. Under the California constitution, the governor has power over the PUC. The governor appoints all the commissioners with approval of the senate. Governors don’t easily relinquish executive power. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a PUC reform bill last year.

While a constitutional amendment doesn’t require the governor’s okay to find its way on the ballot, you can bet Brown’s office will be involved in the discussions.

Ironically, the move to give power to the legislature over the utilities commission is a reversal of history. The Public Utilities Commission came into being initially as the Railroad Commission designed to regulate the railroads. The vote establishing the Railroad Commission was on the same 1911 special election ballot in which California voters put initiative, referendum and recall into the state constitution. Both the independent Railroad Commission and the power of direct democracy were designed to sidestep the legislature, which was considered in the pocket of the railroad magnates of the day.

Now the solution offered for a weakened PUC is to put a legislative leash on the agency.

How successful this move is remains to be seen. However, given the turmoil at the PUC these past few years, Gatto’s call for change is timely and will kick off a much-needed debate and examination of the agency.

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