Brown, Lawmakers Plan To Reform Utility Regulator

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SACRAMENTO >> Gov. Jerry Brown announced Monday he has reached a deal with lawmakers on proposed legislation to improve transparency and make other reforms at the embattled California Public Utilities Commission.

The proposal comes nearly eight months after the Democratic governor vetoed six bills looking to crack down on the commission, which regulates privately owned electric, gas and telecommunications companies, including their rates and safety practices. The agency also oversees railroad safety as well as transportation providers such as buses, limousines, airport shuttles, movers and ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft.

It has been accused of maintaining cozy relationships with the companies it regulates and responding slowly to safety issues.

Brown and three Democratic lawmakers who are pushing legislation related to the commission agreed to scale back its regulatory authority, including removing most oversight of transportation companies, and to require more public disclosure and participation in its proceedings. The lawmakers are Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Glendale and Sens. Jerry Hill of San Mateo and Mark Leno of San Francisco.

"These reforms will change how this commission does business," Brown said in a statement.

The bulk of the legislation requires approval from both houses of the state Legislature.

Under the proposed overhaul, the commission would shift responsibility for implementing and enforcing transportation regulations to other state agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol. Authority for rulemaking would remain with the commission. Lawmakers hope removing transportation oversight will eliminate a distraction and allow the agency to focus on utility regulation.

The attorney general would gain authority to enforce limitations on private communications between utility executives and Public Utilities Commission staff or commissioners. Emails made public in a lawsuit over the San Bruno explosion described then-commission president Michael Peevey holding private discussions with Pacific Gas & Electric officials on issues affecting the company.

A spokesman for PG&E, Donald Cutler, said the company is committed to dealing ethically with regulators and will review the proposal.

The overhaul would also require the Public Utilities Commission to hold meetings throughout the state, not just at its San Francisco headquarters, and forge better relationships with other state regulators that oversee elements of the energy industry.

People denied access to public records would gain the right to challenge the decision in court. The commission would also hire an ethics ombudsman and a high-level official in charge of safety.

The proposal "represents a realignment of the values for the PUC," said Gatto, who proposed a ballot measure earlier this year to bypass Brown and ask voters to break apart the agency.

"It will enable them to be more specialized, more focused, basically to have the ability to make safety a priority, to make utility rates a priority," Gatto told reporters in a news conference.

Gatto said he'll drop the proposed ballot measure if the proposal wins legislative approval.

In vetoing six commission reform bills last year, Brown said lawmakers tried to do too much at once and didn't provide adequate funding. He said he'd work with lawmakers to enact changes.

The proposal is a modest improvement that provides new tools for public interest groups to keep an eye on the Public Utilities Commission, but "utilities will not be shedding a tear over this reform plan," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that has repeatedly raised concerns about the commission.

"I think it does move the ball forward in terms of providing more sunshine so there isn't another scandal, but it does not fundamentally address the imbalance of power between ratepayers and the investor-owned utilities," Court said.

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