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Michael Hiltzik: PG&E buys itself a ballot initiative

December 28, 2009 |  3:00 am

The characteristic campaign photograph of Hiram W. Johnson, who served two terms as California governor and five as its U.S. senator early in the last century, depicted him in a three-piece suit and high collar, with his dukes up.

It was in this spirit of battling California's entrenched corporate interests that Gov. Johnson invented the ballot initiative. The only way to break the grip of the railroads and land barons on the state Legislature, he reasoned, was to give the voters direct access to the mechanism of making laws and amending the constitution.

To paraphrase the Max von Sydow character in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters," if Johnson could see today what is going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.

My column for Monday takes as its instructional text a ballot initiative concocted by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to torpedo competition from municipal utilities. If you're searching for a lesson in how cynical our modern corporate interests can be, look no further.

The column begins below.

On the face of it, nobody should find anything objectionable to the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act, a proposed initiative now awaiting certification to go on the state ballot.

The measure would require a two-thirds vote by residents of a municipality to approve certain public expenditures or borrowings. It’s cast as the most virtuous of good-government propositions. Or as Greg Larsen, head of the initiative’s campaign committee puts it, “Why shouldn’t the people who are going to pay the bill have the right to vote on that?”

But let’s shine a light on this initiative from another angle. First, the only expenditures it applies to are those devoted to setting up or expanding a municipal electrical utility. And its sole sponsor, according to state campaign finance records — is Pacific Gas and Electric Co., one of the biggest electrical utilities in the state. So far, PG&E has spent $3 million of ratepayers’ money to advance the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act.

What are the chances that PG&E ginned up this innocuous-sounding initiative, shrouding its own involvement behind a scrim of public relations and law firms, largely to preserve its monopoly against competition from public power agencies? I’d say 100%.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik

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