Power crisis divides Calif. congressional delegation

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San Diego Union Tribune

Back in 1997, as California’s experiment with electricity deregulation was about to get under way, the state’s entire House delegation signed a letter assuring congressional leaders that the plan would ”provide tremendous benefits to the citizens of our state.”

Now that the experiment is acknowledged as an abject failure, the delegation has yet to present a united front on what, if anything, the federal government should do to help out.

Most notably, there seems to be no consensus on the wisdom of slapping federal price controls on the stratospheric cost of wholesale power in the West. While nearly all California Democrats have publicly embraced the proposal, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, only a handful of Republicans have joined them.

”In terms of price caps, there are deep divisions,” an aide to one top California Republican acknowledged.

Many GOP members worry that price controls ”would leave (power companies) disinterested in selling to the California market,” aggravating the electricity shortage, the aide said.

The feeling is not unanimous among Republicans, however. California Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon and Randy ”Duke” Cunningham of Escondido whose San Diego-area constituents were hit with huge power bills last summer have advocated wholesale price limits.

And some Democrats suspect there are more California Republicans who are willing to support price controls but are wary of publicly challenging the Bush administration, which adamantly opposes the limits.

”I think there are Republicans who are very supportive. And we hope that they will join us,” said Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego.

California consumer advocates, who favor price controls, are critical of the congressional response.

”They all organized themselves when it came time to pushing for the utility companies (who favored deregulation). But they’re not organized at all when it comes to (price) caps. They’re AWOL,” said Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

But Tim Ransdell, executive director of the nonpartisan California Institute for Federal Policy Research, said the divisions in the congressional delegation reflect the complexity of the power crisis.

”If there was a silver bullet for this, if there was a single obvious remedy, I think Californians would flock to it,” Ransdell said. ”Price caps may be the right way to go or they may not be. There are strong arguments in varying directions. They’ve got to do something. Nobody knows what the right something is.”

Congressional delegations from other states affected by the power crisis, like Washington and Oregon, are similarly divided.

Despite the rift over price controls, the GOP aide maintained that California Republicans and Democrats ”have worked together in a number of ways to ensure that the (Bush) administration is paying attention to the problem and doing what it can.”

Members of both parties sent strong signals to the administration that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was not doing enough to address the power crisis, the aide said. That message played a role in President Bush‘s reported desire to replace FERC Chairman Curtis Hebert and the commission’s subsequent flurry of threats to order power providers to pay refunds for overcharging California utilities, the aide speculated.

Other observers say Bush merely wants to install his ”own man” as head of FERC former Texas utility regulator Pat Wood and that the agency’s actions amount to tokenism.

Some Democrats believe that the pressure for federal electricity price controls will grow as consumers throughout California start seeing a recent retail rate hike show up in their bills. Widespread blackouts this summer could add more momentum.

”I think we’re going to be witnessing initiatives, referenda, recall efforts, a consumer revolution in California unless we find a way to put a tourniquet on this problem,” said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Venice.

Consumer Watchdog
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