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Making PG&E Pay for Its Campaign Spending

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Making PG&E Pay for Its Campaign Spending

Brian Kusler

PG&E's efforts to convince customers not to sign up with Marin Clean Energy has earned the company a warning from state utility regulators.

It's not that the Northern California utility PG&E got nothing for the more than $40 million its parent company spent on the failed initiative Prop 16. It's clear that PG&E got less than nothing.

The defeat of the initiative to block public agencies from providing their own power has made PG&E a target. Various local governments are looking anew at expanding or introducing public power -- exactly what Prop 16 was designed to stop. And Democrats in the legislature have introduced legislation to prevent any utility with more than 3 million customers (that would just be PG&E) from using ratepayer funds for politics. In fact, it would create a whole new campaign regulatory regime for PG&E, administered by a state commission.

Such legislation is probably unconstitutional, given the U.S. Supreme Court's commitment to defending the political rights of corporations. But it's a sign that PG&E is in the political penalty box and will stay there for a while.

How to get out? As I argue over at Fox & Hounds Daily, PG&E should apologize -- by offering to bankroll the long-term work needed to fix California's broken political and fiscal systems. This might include ads to better inform the public on the problems with the budget (especially the state's tendency to lock in lower taxes and higher spending via ballot measure). This form of reparations not only would be a good thing to do, but also it would be far cheaper than another initaitive like Prop 16.

Will the company actually do this? I'm not holding my breath. PG&E is one of the backers of the Bay Area business policy group that led the effort to call a constitutional convention. That effort stalled for lack of financial support. Imagine if PG&E had stepped up then, and devoted its money and political resources to constitutional reform instead of Prop 16. The state might be further along the path to reform. And the utility would have held onto more of its cash -- and wouldn't be such an easy political target today.

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