PG&E: Plan to raise monthly utility bills for wildfires is killed in Sacramento

WINTERS, CA - AUGUST 20: The LNU Lightning Complex wildfire burns a hillside behind the Canyon Creek Resort in Winters, Calif., early Thursday morning, Aug. 20, 2020. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

A legislative plan to raise bills for customers of PG&E and other utility behemoths in California in a quest to combat wildfires — and bankroll other projects — has been torpedoed in the state Legislature.

The measure failed to receive a vote in the state Senate on the final day of the 2019-2020 legislative session, a marathon of votes and maneuvers that ended early Tuesday morning.

AB 1659 was floated as an emergency measure that would have added 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 have been used to finance a $3 billion fund to help reduce the risk of wildfires in California.

“It’s very good news for ratepayers,” said Mark Toney, executive director of consumer group The Utility Reform Network, or TURN. “It was very good to see AB 1659 die the death it deserved.”

An unusual coalition of utilities that included PG&E, as well as consumer advocates such as TURN, business groups, and agriculture interests emerged to fiercely oppose the bill as a scheme to extract cash from utility customers.

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.

“Immediate action to secure additional resources for battling wildfires in a historic wildfire season” was the primary reason for the legislation, state Assemblymember Kevin Mullin, a San Francisco Democrat and principal author of the bill, said last week in support of the measure.

The three largest Northern California blazes have consumed more than 800,000 acres, damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 structures and forced tens of thousands of people to flee. Six people have been killed.

AB 1659 surfaced just days before the end of the legislative session and was brought up as an emergency measure, which meant that it required a two-thirds vote of both the Senate and the Assembly, as well as the governor’s signature, to become law.

The bill failed to emerge from the Senate in that chamber’s final voting session before adjournment, even after it had been stripped down to a $500 million measure from its original scope of $3 billion.

“This bill would have mortgaged the future of ratepayers for expenses that had nothing to do with utility service,” Toney said.

Among the projects and issues that the bill would have bankrolled: wildfire mitigation, climate change, fire detection devices, cooling centers, back-up solar power, emergency shelters, early warning systems, home protection projects, healthy forests, firefighter training, and upgrades to the Friant–Kern Canal in Bakersfield.

“If the Legislature wanted to support this type of gravy train legislation that gives out little bits to dozens of agencies, organizations, and pet projects, they should do so with the general fund,” Toney said.