[Published in several California dailies Mar. 30 - April 5, 2001, just 
prior to PG&E's bankruptcy declaration.]


Power Crisis

            TIME FOR HARDBALL: START WITH A RATEPAYER'S STRIKE



The lock step attitude of the Public Utilities Commission, following in 
lemming fashion Gov. Gray Davis' decision to bail out the state's electric 
utilities with a "consumers be damned" attitude, has left ratepayers with 
but one option.  It's time for middle class action.  No violence. No 
destruction of property. No infringement on rights. Just a resort to the 
only force the utilities understand: money.  Customers should follow the 
PUC's instructions for "disputed bills" and refuse to pay PG&E or Edison, 
sending their checks instead to the PUC.

Those utilities are no longer entitled to the monopoly status they have 
enjoyed in this state for so many years.  That forfeiture results from 
their failure to provide the services they are required to offer in return 
for the exclusive franchise given them by the public. 

Their violations are legion: layoffs of key repair personnel, cutbacks in 
service, rolling blackouts, failure to maintain their generating 
facilities, nonpayment of suppliers, etc.  Were these utilities in a 
business where competition exists they would have been sacked by their 
customers long ago.

But electric power, by its nature, must exist as a monopoly.  No one wants 
ten different companies stringing lines, placing poles in backyards or 
digging up streets for underground facilities.  For that reason, the public 
long ago recognized the necessity of granting a single company the right to 
provide utility service within a given area. In return, that monopoly had 
to submit to reasonable regulation. 

The system worked well until recently.  Then came an end run by ideologues 
committed to the deregulation of virtually everything, abetted by misguided 
liberals who had forgotten why utilities were regulated. Their chaotic 1996 
deregulation law turned much of the power generation over to high-handed, 
out-of-state generators over whom the Public Utilities Commissioners feel 
they have no authority.  

The agency that all agree can regulate the generators, the Federal Energy 
Regulatory Commission, has been philosophically opposed to doing so, 
whether commissioners be Democrats or Republicans.  The FERC, committed to 
a free market economy, has left consumers at the mercy of money-grubbing 
robber barons.

The Governor contends he's powerless over the PUC, yet has made it clear 
that his appointees are to reflect his position regardless of their own 
personal views.  The Governor blasts rate hikes, yet warmly embraces a 
"tiered rate structure" which, by its very nature, imposes a 40% to 50% 
rate increase on nearly all ratepayers.  The legislature, which saddled 
consumers with this mess, has squandered the state surplus on what amounts 
to gifts to the two giant utilities.  Note the rapid rise in utility stock 
prices recently.

Since the PUC, the Governor and the legislature are unwilling to take the 
only effective action open to them - acquisition of the utilities and 
generators through eminent domain - only the public can exert the force 
that politicians and entrepreneurs understand.  By withholding funds from 
Edison and PG&E, those poverty pleading, cash strapped utilities may beg 
the state to buy their facilities.

Even if the PUC disregards its duty to hold hearings on disputed bills, a 
flood of checks to the commission will demonstrate the firm resolve of 
consumers and reveal the depth of their discontent.  While eventually this 
commission will likely pass the disputed funds on to the utilities, 
Sacramento will sense a voter revolt like none seen since the Great 
Depression.  Even milquetoast pols, sensing the potential destruction of 
their political futures, will be forced to act in the public interest.

So Edison and PG&E customers, when that next bill comes, even if the 
astronomical rate hike recently approved is not yet reflected in it, follow 
the instructions for "disputed bills" on the back of the monthly statement. 
Write a letter of complaint, make out your check and send both to the PUC.  
Customers of smaller utility companies will have to decide whether their 
supplier is equally culpable. If so, your participation will help shake up 
a failed system and will give a new meaning to "power to the people."

                                   - - -

(Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona, can be 
reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu)