Legislature Should Put Consumers First, Not PG&E

Special to The SacramentoBee

Is PG&E about to go bankrupt? And if it chooses to do so, how much are monthly bills going to increase?

I don’t think anybody really knows. What I do know is how much it burns me up to see a company convicted of a felony brandishing the threat of bankruptcy to demand a ratepayer bailout even before the extent of its responsibility for the deadly Tubbs fire in Santa Rosalast October is known.

The bills the company is pushing at the Legislature – Senate Bill 1088 and Assembly Bill 33 — are aimed at assuring investment firms that PG&E’s profits will be propped up by customers no matter how often it violates safety regulations.

The bills would actually weaken safety standards and accountability, with pre-approval to charge customers for anything PG&E labels as safety. And that safety label would then shield it from future liability for imprudence or mismanagement.

That would eliminate protections of the type that stopped PG&E from passing on costs of their mistakes before the 2010 San Brunoexplosion and would gut recent reforms to prioritize safety spending where it is most needed.

Not only would PG&E be free to raise customer rates with very limited review, the objections of TURN and other consumer groups would be silenced.

If PG&E is indeed teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, you can’t tell by the amounts of cash it spends on political influence. Last year, it gave more than $2 million to politicians from both parties and spent nearly $ million lobbying in Washington,D.C. In the first half of this year, the company spent $2.2 million to lobby state legislators and officials, including $1.1 million to change California’s liability laws for wildfire damage.

Lawmakers should understand that we need solutions that put people, not corporations, first.  For example, the state could establish a wildfire risk pool to cover catastrophic losses, modeled on the California Earthquake Authority, or create other programs to address the massive losses of fire victims.

Last year, PG&E shut off 300,000 households that couldn’t afford their electric bills. It didn’t offer them a bailout when they fell behind in their payments. Higher bills will just exacerbate the problem and leave more PG&E customers in the dark.

PG&E clearly has a problem on its hands. But its habitual failure to safely manage its power lines and poles and its repeated criminal conduct in violating regulations, will not be solved by a bailout, bankruptcy or a free pass on accountability.

The state simply can’t afford to give PG&E a free pass — not on safety and not on paying its bills. The Legislature should be looking for ways to protect consumers from PG&E, not worrying about protecting PG&E from itself.