PG&E seeing its livelihood threatened proceeded to dump over 11 million dollars into a campaign to discredit the efforts of SMUD and scare the daylights out of residents in Sacramento County. It worked. One of the ballot measures in Yolo County passed and the other failed by a small margin of votes. However the ballot measures were overwhelmingly defeated in Sacramento County.
The “Taxpayers Right to Vote Act” would also hamper the ability of communities to create their own public utilities, an activity that ballot measure spokesman Greg Larsen likens to a government takeover.
“If communities choose to pursue any kind of government takeover, it can happen, but there has to be a vote,” he said.
The very name of this ballot measure is misleading. For it is clear that in fact in 2006 there was a vote–in fact four votes two in Yolo and two in Sacramento County. However, apparently those elections were not actually required by law.
Nevertheless this measure would set a much higher standard, according to Mr. Garvin’s article, “requiring voters to approve any takeover of an existing public power grid by a two-thirds vote. Raising the bar even further, the new law requires an election in the proposed new service area, along with a separate election in the existing service area, without exception.”
The communications director of SMUD, Elisabeth Brinton suggests in the article that the PG&E backed constitutional amendment would not give the ratepayers much of a choice.
“It really goes to the heart of the right of people to have choices, that’s the intent of this measure. It’s horrendous. The cost of doing these elections, the whole process is really extraordinary.”
Like the misleading name of the ballot measure, the initiative is being pushed by a group with a deceptive name, Californians to Protect our Right to Vote. It’s basically an “astroturf” effort however as the filing fees are being paid for by PG&E and according to spokesperson Greg Larsen, PG&E is “definitely part of our coalition.”
Wikipedia refers to the term astroturfing as:
“Political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass, AstroTurf.”
“The goal of such a campaign is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity—a politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt (“outreach”, “awareness”, etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual pushing a personal agenda or highly organized professional groups with financial backing from large corporations, non-profits, or activist organizations.”
Clearly this term would apply to the current situation.
The News and Review further ties the two efforts:
“Although it’s still early in the process, Larsen said any future campaign would likely rely on the services of Townsend Raimundo Besler & Usher, the same Sacramento firm which ran PG&E’s anti-public power campaigns in Sacramento and Yolo counties in 2006. Townsend Raimundo Besler & Usher is also the firm that ran Kevin Johnson’s successful mayoral bid in 2008 and is now trying to help one company obtain the rights to store 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas under the ground (and under houses and business) in the Avondale-Glen Elder neighborhood of Sacramento.”
The push for public power in part has to do with the lower electrical rates but also the greener energy mix. Mr. Larsen argues that the voters should have a say in this process but fails to cite a single case where they have not.
“SMUD customers have historically paid lower electricity rates than PG&E customers, and they now have access to an energy mix that is slightly greener, using more power from renewable sources like wind and solar. While PG&E customers can try their luck complaining to the company’s customer-service department if they have a problem, SMUD ratepayers can directly harangue the utility’s board of directors at weekly public meetings, should they choose to do so.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that where SMUD and PG&E butt up against each other, PG&E customers occasionally try to defect. The proposed ballot measure would erect a wall making such defections difficult, if not impossible. It’s only fair, Larson says, because switching to public power generally requires the government agency to buy out the private agency’s land, power lines and other equipment.
“If a government goes to go and buy out a power system, the people wind up footing the bill,” Larsen said. “When governments want to get involved in the energy business, the voters should have the final say.”
Still, Larsen couldn’t name any occasion where the electorate had been denied a vote on a public power proposal. “You’re making it too complicated,” he said. “This measure simply sets up a standard.”
Voters have always had the final say on public power proposals, at least in the Sacramento region. In fact, as noted, there were four votes on SMUD’s expansion in 2006 alone. PG&E was successful in getting an advisory vote passed on that year’s June primary ballot. That measure called for a binding vote in both Sacramento and Yolo counties before SMUD’s expansion could be approved. “
The bottom line appears to be that if residents want public power, they are going to have to ward off efforts such as these. And it will not be easy. As mentioned earlier, PG&E spent more than $11 million on the fall election which shattered all sorts of local campaign finance records. SMUD as a public agency could not spend any money on the political campaign, and while local businesses and the elected officials were basically united behind the measure, they were no match for the financial clout of PG&E.
It seems overkill that PG&E would wish to further stack the deck, but that is exactly what has happened.
“You see people rebelling all over the place,” observed Susan Patterson, a former member of the SMUD board and one of the leaders of the 2006 campaign to expand public power into Yolo County. “This is PG&E’s attempt to put the final nail in the coffin for public power.”
“SMUD can’t put any money into a political campaign,” Patterson noted. “But PG&E has a bottomless checking account.”
The residents of California now are going to have an uphill fight to keep even the possibility of life without PG&E alive.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
*image at the top was the image scanned from a misleading brochure that implied that PG&E was affiliated with the No on X campaign and represented the environmental and progressive choice. Here was the Vanguard article at the time.