No part of state government except the courts is supposed to be more independent and less subject to the sway of politics than the Public Utilities Commission, which decides rates and other practices of California’s largest utilities. That’s why commissioners serve six-year terms, longer even than the governors who appoint them. It’s also why they can’t be fired, not even by those governors or their successors.
And yet — few government agencies in California are more craven, more slavishly interested in serving the interests of the huge corporations they regulate, behemoths like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric. Commissioners also rule on some telephone company mergers, although phone rates – for both mobile and land lines – are now largely out of its hands.
Two new PUC appointees from Gov. Jerry Brown don’t figure to change any of this. It’s hard to find any PUC decision of the last 50 years running against the financial interests of those it regulates. This may explain the long-running revolving door between the commission and those companies.
Two prominent examples: John Bryson, a PUC president during Gov. Jerry Brown’s first administration in the 1970s, later spent almost 30 years as chairman of Southern California Edison. Moving in the other direction was the disgraced Michael Peevey, an Edison president before becoming head of the commission, where he’s alleged to have conspired with Edison executives about how to force consumers to pay most costs for closing the failed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, largely a victim of Edison mistakes.
Rarely has the PUC been more craven than in Brown’s latest six years. Not only are the interests of SDG&E, where Brown’s sister Kathleen is a well-paid board member, well cared for. But commissioners often seem to follow Brown’s orders as if he could fire them – which he cannot.
In return, Brown allows figures like Peevey great latitude, so long as they pursue his own green-power aims of making California more and more reliant on hyper-expensive wind and solar energy.
When Peevey finally left two years ago (he’s still under investigation; no one knows where that may lead under a new state attorney general), Brown replaced him with Michael Picker, one of his close advisers.
This month, with two commissioners termed out, including another disgraced Brown appointee (Mike Florio, whose helping PG&E in a major case forced him to recuse himself from all further PG&E matters), Brown could have named two independent commissioners. Instead, he chose two more of his advisers.
Martha Guzman Aceves, 39, has been Brown’s deputy legislative affairs secretary since 2011. And Clifford Rechtschaffen, 59, has been one of his senior advisers for the same time span, working on climate, energy and environmental issues. Previously, he served Brown during his tenure as attorney general.
These folks together make up the right arm of Jerry Brown. Now that he can’t fire them at will anymore, how likely are they suddenly to become independent of their longtime boss? One indicator: The PUC’s first action after the two appointments was a deceptive filing with a federal appeals court, claiming it has disclosed all documents in the San Onofre case, when at least 65 Brown-Picker emails remain hidden.
Only the state Senate holds the power to do something toward creating a degree of independence for this commission, now composed almost wholly of close gubernatorial aides. These are not folks with great experience of consumer issues who know how much utility rates can impact the lives of ordinary Californians.
It’s high time for the state Senate to start asking them tough questions: Will the newbies promise not to socialize with utility executives? Will they promise to reveal quickly the full content of email and telephone conversations they have with those execs and with Wall Street bankers investing in utility companies? Will they stop the long-running “kabuki dance” in which utilities ask for much more in every rate increase request than they know they can get, then happily accept less – but still much more than had before – while the PUC brags on how much it “saved” consumers?
There should be many more questions. But in state history, there has never been a contentious hearing on a PUC appointment. Will that coziness survive the scandals of the last three years? The next two months will tell.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.