Letter From Our ED—January 2007

No matter wins an election, TURN will insure consumer voices are heard, through our work in coalitions, through outreach and education, and by pushing a legislative agenda that touts consumer interests and continue to make our members proud to be a critical part of the organization.

What a difference a few months makes. Not that long ago there was a far greater likelihood that Governor Schwarzenegger would have to go back to Hollywood in 2007 than that the Republicans would lose control of Congress. Instead, there was a sea change in Washington D.C., and Democrats will set the Congressional agenda and head the various committees that cover issues impacting California utility customers.

But California bucked the trend. In a remarkable political recovery, Governor Schwarzenegger went from road-kill to runaway victor, easily winning re-election even as California put Democrats in nearly every other statewide office. The California Legislature is still firmly in Democratic control, and much of the Governor’s gain in popularity closely tracked his shifting to a course more in sync with the Democrats’ priorities and agenda.

So what does all of this mean for TURN’s members and California consumers generally? Given the pro-utility and pro-big business policies we’ve seen in recent years, is it likely that any change will be a positive change for consumers? Well, maybe.

On the one hand, there’s no doubt that consumer interests will have a friendlier reception in the halls of Congress in 2007 than we’ve seen in recent years. The single best example might be the replacement of Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who ran the House Energy and Commerce Committee with a staff culled largely from Reliant and similar hucksters for deregulation. John Dingell of Michigan, a D.C. veteran with much stronger consumer credentials, now heads the committee. While the Democrats may not be all that we would hope for, we will get a fairer shake in the new Congress than we’ve been getting of late on Capitol Hill.

But there’s always the other hand. Sure, the line-up at Congress has changed, such that we might see a scaling back of the Energy Act passed in 2005 (for example, tax breaks for energy companies while eliminating consumer protections that prevented mega-mergers). But two federal agencies with increasingly critical responsibility for consumer issues, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC), are still largely in the hands of Bush appointees.

The FERC oversees wholesale energy markets and plays a role in approving transmission projects. It is also the agency that fiddled while California burned, refusing to reinstate price caps during the deregulation disaster. The FCC plays a key role in regulating (or not regulating, as is all too often the case) the telecommunications industry, particularly wireless carriers.

Closer to home, re-electing Governor Schwarzenegger means we can expect the same types of appointees to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that we’ve seen of late–pro-business, pro-utility, pro-deregulation, often deaf to consumer concerns.

In the end, TURN cannot count on the mid-term elections to create a wave of pro-consumer sentiment. We’ll continue to lock horns with a CPUC that is decidedly antagonistic to many of our views, and we will push a legislative agenda that touts consumer interests to try to counter-balance the utility and other business interests that roam the halls of Sacramento. And we’ll keep looking for new and innovative ways to get consumer voices heard, through our work in coalitions with other consumer and community groups, and through revitalized outreach and education efforts. Keep an eye out for further news on this front, we’re making plans that will help TURN grow in its role as California’s premier consumer advocate, and continue to make our members proud to be a critical part of the organization.

Sincerely,

Executive Director
Bob Finkelstein