Higher PG&E bills: State lawmakers cook up new wildfire plan

A battle has erupted in Sacramento over a last-minute legislative measure that pits the interests of utility customers who don’t want to pay higher power bills against a quest to bankroll efforts to combat wildfires in a financially shaky California.

The legislation, AB 1659, is being floated as an emergency measure in the state Legislature and would add roughly $1 to the monthly bills for customers of PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric for decades to come. The money would be used to finance a $3 billion fund to help reduce the risk of wildfires in California.

With a series of lightning-sparked infernos still blazing in California, some state lawmakers crafted the bill by gutting a stalled piece of legislation related to affordable housing and replacing it with the wildfire-related measure.

The three largest Northern California blazes have consumed nearly 820,000 acres, damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 structures and forced tens of thousands of people to flee. Six people have been killed.

“The Legislature cannot end our session judiciously without taking immediate action to secure additional resources for battling wildfires in a historic wildfire season and mitigating the resulting environmental damage,” said Assemblymember Kevin Mullin, a San Francisco Democrat and principal author of the bill.

AB 1659 also would provide funds to help address climate change, clear vegetation, create more fire-safe communities, and train firefighters.

But this effort quickly drew fire from a diverse set of key players: a major consumer group, agricultural interests, business groups, and the state’s three utility behemoths. The bill is part of the torrent of last-second business being conducted in the final days of the legislative session.

“It is completely inappropriate to use utility bills as a piggy bank to pay for unrelated state expenditures,” said Mark Toney, executive director of consumer group The Utility Reform Network, or TURN. “This is asking utility customers to pay billions for non-utility-related wildfire mitigation.”

Critics say several components in the legislation appear to go beyond utility customers.

“The activities called for in the bill, including home-hardening, ecosystem restoration, workforce development, restoration of state parks damaged by wildfire, early warning systems, and increasing water supply reliability, benefit all Californians, not just, or even primarily, investor-owned utility customers,” executives with PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric wrote in a letter to the state Legislature.

If money is needed to battle wildfires, the funds should be extracted from California taxpayers and not lifted from the pockets of customers of PG&E and other big utilities, opponents of the legislation said.

“This bill would require PG&E customers to shoulder billions of dollars in costs to fund state agency and government projects that have nothing to do with electric service,” PG&E spokesman James Noonan said.

Since 2019, utility customers have been paying a fee on their monthly bills used to create a $21 billion insurance fund to pay for fire damage caused by utility companies. The legislation would extend that fee until at least 2045.

“AB 1659 will provide our state with the means necessary to address longer and more severe fire seasons to come,” Mullin said.

At present, a PG&E residential customer who receives both electricity and gas service pays an average of $181.21 a month. That includes an average residential electricity bill of $127.40 and an average residential gas bill of $53.81.

Hitting ratepayers for more cash is especially difficult at a time when record-breaking layoffs have pummelled workers in California, TURN asserted.

“Bills for essential services should not be padded with costs more appropriately distributed through income taxes, especially at a time when so many lower-income ratepayers have lost their jobs,” Toney said.